‘Nothing is working as it should’: New Covid strain stalls Irish truckers in Britain

France’s ban to stop new virus type from spreading wreaks havoc for transport firms

Timelapse footage captures long lines of trucks stopped in Kent, UK due to a travel ban imposed by France following the resurgence of Covid-19 infections in London and the southeast of England. Video: Newsflare

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Lorry driver Paddy Neary was on his way to his cabin on Sunday night when the ship’s crew told him about France’s ban on road freight from Britain over a new coronavirus strain.

The Co Louth haulier was told to return to his lorry below deck immediately and reverse it off the Newhaven-Dieppe ferry, “which wasn’t simple”, he said.

His cargo of frozen burgers, to be shipped from Co Cavan to northern France in a convoy with two other Irish lorries, would not be making their delivery time the following day.

He was ordered out of the port and had to park up in a lay-by near the southern England port.

“We should have already unloaded in France at this stage,” Neary told The Irish Times shortly after noon on Monday.

“We don’t know whether we are going to be told to go home or whether we will be cold-stored here. We are awaiting instructions on what to do next. It is a mess.”

Neary was one of 250 drivers stranded in Britain after France closed its borders to truckers from Britain, including Irish drivers who use the “landbridge” route, a critical transport link between Ireland and mainland Europe to bring goods to markets.

“This was exactly what was coming down the tracks with Brexit. It has just happened a week earlier,” he said.

“People don’t realise the sheer volume of goods that come in and out of Ireland and the UK, or the amount of trucks going through Dover. It is the same in Dublin and Holyhead.”

On Monday, Laurence O’Toole of Co Galway-based haulage company O’Toole Transport had 70 trucks out on roads in Britain and northern Europe. The night before, seven staff at his office were busy cancelling bookings on ships and making new bookings after the French ban.

Drivers were directed to drop trailers at Tilbury, a port in Essex, on new ship bookings to Zeebrugge in Belgium. Customers planning to send loads to Europe this week cancelled orders.

“We have drivers in England with no trailers and we have too many trailers on the continent and have no idea how we get them back. We are going to end up with a whole mismatch of equipment in Britain and France,” said a busy O’Toole after a frantic 24-hour period.

“We have got drivers who should be on their way home for Christmas and we have no idea what is going to happen. We are trying to work through it and get them back home.”

French counterparts

Government Ministers and officials scrambled on Monday, from Zoom call to Zoom call for meetings with their French counterparts, with haulage industry groups and shipping lines, to find extra ferry capacity to keep supplies running and to get drivers home, four days before Christmas.

“This is a 48-hour crisis and we are moving fast and engaging at all levels of Government,” said Minister of State for International and Road Transport and Logistics Hildegarde Naughton.

Stena Line agreed to bring forward plans to put a second ship, carrying mostly “dropped” or unaccompanied trailers, on the Rosslare-Cherbourg route to help get lorries back to Ireland.

This means two ships would leave the Co Wexford port on Tuesday to pick up Irish lorries.

“We are getting a very sharp taste of what Brexit looks like if there are problems on the landbridge,” said Cormac Healy, director of Meat Industry Ireland.

France’s Covid ban has exposed capacity issues and shortages on direct sailings to mainland Europe, an issue haulage industry groups had warned about for weeks and months.

Mr Healy said there was not enough space for “roll-on, roll-off” lorry freight – displaced from the UK “landbridge” – that is critical for “just-in-time” deliveries of fresh and chilled meats from Ireland to the UK and Europe in “sophisticated” cross-border supply chains.

“It works fine but we depend on not running into restrictions or delays at ports,” he said.

Mr Healy said meat plants were still processing on Monday but longer delays could affect the ability to process, which could have a knock-on effect on farmers trying to sell livestock.

Irish industry was looking for confirmation from the EU that certain supply lines and “the essentiality of fresh food movement” would be kept open with “green lanes”, just like in the early days of Covid, he said.

In Co Galway, Laurence O’Toole was trying to figure out how to get a consignment of fresh seafood sitting on an English dock delivered to his main fish market in northern France.

“Nothing is working as it should,” he said.