France agrees to reopen borders with UK to lorry drivers testing negative for Covid-19

Coveney urges businesses to take direct ferries to Europe to avoid UK disruption

France will reopen its borders to Covid-clear passengers from the UK on December 23rd, ending a blockade intended to stop the spread of a new coronavirus variant which has held up thousands of lorries before Christmas. Video: Reuters

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Mandatory Covid-19 testing of lorry drivers crossing from Britain to France will be another reason to stop Irish traders using the key UK “landbridge” route to mainland Europe, industry groups have warned.

On Tuesday night France agreed to reopen its borders with Britain to lorry drivers who test negative for Covid-19, after a 48-hour ban was introduced on Sunday to prevent the spread of a more infectious coronavirus strain from England.

The closure left thousands of truckers, including up to 250 Irish drivers, stranded on roadsides, in motorway lay-bys and emergency lorry parks across southern England.

French authorities will, until at least January 6th, permit drivers travelling for essential reasons into the country if they show a negative Covid-19 test that is less than 72 hours old.

Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney questioned whether Irish lorry drivers having to manage Covid-19 testing would be “workable” given the tight timelines Irish hauliers operate under using the UK as a landbridge to the rest of the EU.

He anticipates “some weeks” of disruption, lorry queues and ferry delays at British ports as a result of new EU-UK border controls from January 1st when Brexit takes effect.

Direct ferries

The Minister urged business to take direct ferries to mainland Europe instead.

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“The focus should now be on the direct ferry routes for the foreseeable future,” he said.

Asked about capacity shortages for lorries on direct ferries, Mr Coveney said shipping lines were reacting quickly and there was “significant ramping up capacity” on direct routes.

“We are likely to see more of that in the coming days,” he said.

The haulage industry wants drivers exempted from tests given that they are “transiting” through Britain, and has said that testing will discourage traders from taking the route.

“It is another nail in the coffin for the landbridge but it is not the final nail. We still need it because there is not enough capacity right now on the direct routes,” said Aidan Flynn, chief executive of the Freight Transport Association Ireland.

This was “a wake-up call” for businesses to examine alternative routes to the continent ahead of Brexit border controls starting, he said.

Travelling through Britain has traditionally been the cheapest and quickest way to Europe, but stopping for Covid-19 testing may jeopardise time-sensitive fresh and chilled food deliveries.

On-the-spot tests

British officials managed to convince France to accept quick, on-the-spot tests for Covid rather than the standard PCR tests that can take at least a day to produce a result.

Irish Exporters Association chief executive Simon McKeever questioned the practicality of testing drivers en route and what would happen to a load if the driver tests positive.

“This will cause people to reconsider using the landbridge because it is introducing uncertainty in the short term as they figure out what this means,” he said.

Mr Flynn said it was “very disappointing” that the French authorities were “ignoring” the European Commission’s guidance issued on Tuesday that member states exempt essential transport workers carrying goods across borders from testing and quarantines.

“Cargo flows need to continue uninterrupted,” the commission said.

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