Thousands of truck drivers scramble for tests at UK port after France eases blockade

Thousands of truck drivers scramble for tests at UK port after France eases blockade

Thousands of stranded truck drivers at the British port of Dover vented their anger Wednesday as they struggled to access coronavirus tests, after France agreed to ease a blockade despite fears over a new Covid-19 variant.

The UK and France struck a deal late on Tuesday evening to allow truck drivers, French citizens and residents across the English Channel, after days of chaos at the border sparked panic buying in the UK and led to fears over food and medicine shortages.

But the agreement requires people to have proof of a negative Covid-19 test conducted in the past 72 hours, prompting a rush to test drivers that is expected to draw in the British military and the National Health Service (NHS).

Just two trucks had arrived at France's Calais port late on Wednesday morning, a press officer for the port told CNN, with several thousand still lined up in rows on a motorway and in a disused airport in southeast England.

UK Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said on Twitter that testing was ongoing with military support in Dover, but warned that it is "a mammoth task and clearing the backlog will take time and patience."

A testing regime that will allow the hauliers to leave Britain has been hastily organized, with 170 military personnel deployed to carry out mass testing on the ground. But little evidence of it was visible on Wednesday morning, with police advising drivers to get tested either via the NHS or at Kent's Manston Airport.

And tension mounted between some drivers and officials, with crowds of hauliers shouting and arguing with authorities over the standstill, access to testing and the lack of facilities at the port of Dover on Wednesday. As dawn broke on Wednesday morning, visibly frustrated drivers complained to police officers of about the lack of toilet facilities. "No shower, no toilet, no nothing," one said.

Later in the day, a CNN team witnessed a mobile testing unit arrive at the port. Yet the day ended as it began, with anxiety mounting among the drivers desperate to get home for the holiday season. 

At least two people were arrested when scuffles broke out between police and truck drivers at the port city. Footage showed police using batons to push back truck drivers -- though it remains unclear what sparked the incident.

Almost 5,000 trucks are waiting to cross the border according to the Kent Resilience Forum, which tackles emergencies, in scenes that could foreshadow further Brexit-related turmoil in the New Year. On Tuesday, Highways England estimated there were another 900 in gridlock on the nearby M20 motorway, and hundreds more have been stuck at Manston Airport, which was brought into use as a parking lot.

The period leading up to Christmas is traditionally a busy time for trade, as fresh produce from Europe is imported for the festive period. 

Adding to the urgency is the impending end of the Brexit transition period on December 31, with a trade deal between the UK and the EU still not reached and Britain already facing the prospect of severe disruption at its ports as a result.