Eamonn Hore and his colleagues in Wexford County Council faced a difficult job last month. In four short days, they had to turn a 35-acre site off the N25 near Waterford into a Covid-19 testing centre for truckers heading to France.
“We worked round-the-clock for those four days, with dozens of staff getting 3,000 tonnes of tarmac for the site, electricity, forming a traffic management plan, and the plumbing too,” he told The Irish Times.
On January 15th, Hore was told by the Department of Transport that a site was required, after France decided to demand negative Covid antigen tests from truck drivers arriving at the country’s ports and borders.
Transport Infrastructure set up a centre on the M11 at Ballyellin, 10km north of Gorey, for trucks coming from the Dublin side, while Wexford County Council had to set up a second to deal with traffic coming from elsewhere.
Thoughts about setting up its testing centre in Rosslare were quickly discarded: “We decided it would not be wise to be bringing that volume of untested drivers into Rosslare, that close to the port,” says Hore.
They chose Holmestown, surrounded by 15 acres of forest. Approval was quickly given by the State authorities on January 28th: “From that point, we had four days to have it ready,” Hore said.
The plans met with a chorus of disapproval: the testing centres would not be set up in time, they would not be able to deal with the demand or truck companies would not be able to deal with the consequences of a negative test.
So far, the doubters have been proved wrong. One of the loudest critics, the Irish Road Haulage Association, says it had concerns, "but, in fairness, the infrastructure is good, trucks are well-accommodated.
"There's still a few user-friendly issues but they've accommodated very well the requirements by the French authorities for drivers," said the haulage association's vice-president, Paul Jackman.
Before, truckers who missed a ferry to Britain simply took the next one. Following Brexit, this is no longer simple, leaving companies with “onerous” paperwork to do: “[This] is protecting our trade route,” he told The Irish Times.
So far, the Holmestown centre alone, which is run by private health firm Roc Doc, has tested nearly 400 drivers, while HGV traffic figures in the county's main artery, the M11/N11, are 40 per cent up since January 2020.
Holmestown will be able to cope with increased demand, says Hore: “We’re well-prepared,” he said, adding that there are spaces for 75 more HGVs nearby if there are more than 20 truckers in the queue at any one time.
Drivers are currently getting results in less than an hour. If a driver tests positive, he or she is sent for a free Covid-19 PCR test and required to follow public health guidance. Self-isolation rooms are being provided in Rosslare for drivers not living in Ireland.
It's brought "great relief", says Alan Golds, one haulier who uses the Holmestown centre. "There's a peace of mind in it, knowing everyone on the ferry has been tested and they're okay to travel."
Up to now, just five of the nearly 3,000 truckers who have been tested in the State-run centres in Wexford and near Dublin Airport as they leave the State have been found to be positive. In all, nearly 1,300 tests have been carried out at the two Wexford centres.
Other centres have also been developed for Dublin Airport and Co Wexford. The new facilities have been welcomed by hauliers, with the Irish Road Haulage Association praising the work at the sites.
Questioned about the operation of the centres, the Department of Transport said: “The new arrangements are working well at both the Irish and French ends, but will be kept under close review.”