It will take days, however, to move the thousands of freight trucks stranded on the British side of the English Channel as the drivers are all tested.
British Home Secretary Priti Patel tweeted Wednesday that mass testing has begun and that the “priority is to get lorries moving.” She urged people to avoid traveling to Kent due to major congestion, saying that an increase in travelers now “will slow things down.”
Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick estimated that at least 4,000 trucks were parked around the Kent region and said the military would manage testing sites, including one at Manston airport where many of the trucks are located.
“It’s a significant number to work through. . . . I think it will take a few days,” he said to Sky News.
TV footage showed angry drivers scuffling with police and honking their horns in protest after being stranded for days, often far from even the most basic hygienic facilities. Many now face the prospect of missing Christmas with their families.
In interviews with local television, truckers picketing the port town of Dover said there was no movement, no apparent testing and no facilities provided for them.
“What we’ve got this morning is very, very angry truckers in Dover,” Rod McKenzie of the Road Haulage Association told the BBC. “They’re tired, frustrated, desperately want to get home for Christmas.”
Kent Police tweeted Wednesday that they have responded to “disturbances in Dover and Manston this morning involving individuals hoping to cross the Channel” and made one arrest.
In his morning television appearances, Jenrick also said there were no shortages of food at supermarkets and urged everyone to avoid panic-buying. Many locations have reported empty supermarket shelves.
Britain’s main supermarket chains, Tesco and Sainsbury’s, however, warned on Monday that some fresh food could run out if freight did not start moving soon. Late Tuesday, Tesco announced the rationing of certain products in an email to customers, including toilet paper, rice, soap and eggs, to ensure there would be enough for everyone.
Britain’s newspapers, meanwhile, were dominated with images of thousands of trucks lined up in Manston, amid reports that more of the country could go into harsher lockdowns as soon as Saturday to stop the spread of the virus. While Jenrick would not comment on any plans, he did tell the BBC that the new variant was spreading and a “game-changer.”
The announcement by British Health Secretary Matt Hancock on Sunday that a new mutant variant of the coronavirus could be even more contagious and was “out of control” in the country prompted swift travel bans from much of Europe and dozens of countries abroad.
France was unique in banning freight across one of Europe’s busiest travel corridors, a step that Jenrick on Wednesday singled out as “relatively unusual.”
British officials tightened restrictions in some regions, closing all nonessential businesses such as shops, restaurants, gyms and salons.
Amid the sudden enforced isolation from the rest of the world — which comes as Britain is attempting to negotiate the terms of its future relations with the European Union — much of the country is experiencing a harsh new lockdown coinciding with Christmas and the banning of most gatherings.
As many European countries rushed to impose new rules on travelers from Britain, the European Commission on Tuesday urged member states to coordinate their response and lift bans on flights, trains and freight, citing “the need to ensure essential travel and avoid supply chain disruptions.”
Some countries chose to move forward with bans anyway. Germany and Ireland extended their bans, and Hungary has barred passengers flights from Britain until February. On Wednesday, Singapore and the Philippines announced they, too, would ban flights from Britain.
Belgium, meanwhile, said essential travelers from Britain would be allowed to enter between Dec. 23 and Jan. 1. Starting Dec. 25, however, all nonresidents will be required to present evidence of a negative PCR swab conducted within 48 hours of their arrival in Belgium.
The Netherlands also eased its ban, requiring a negative PCR test for passengers arriving from Britain or South Africa, where a similar variant has been detected.
Siobhán O’Grady contributed to this report.