Moving food and medicine: The view from a truck driver’s seat

Freight truckers are increasingly the only people who can travel across Europe

Freight lorries queue at the Port of Dover on March 20th as EU leaders agreed to restrict most travel into the continent. Photograph: Luke MacGregor/Bloomberg

Freight lorries queue at the Port of Dover on March 20th as EU leaders agreed to restrict most travel into the continent. Photograph: Luke MacGregor/Bloomberg

 

John Fischer left Ireland for Scandinavia with a truck full of lamb in the early hours of Saturday. By Thursday, he expects to be back on the island, having returned with a load of hotdogs for Ikea. The bald and burly 47-year old from Denmark is an international freight driver, and one of the few people in Europe still able to cross the continent as nations close their borders.

The supply of food and medicines rely on Fischer and his fellow hauliers. They are increasingly lone voyagers, with a rare international perspective on a continent under lockdown.

“We see a lot when we are on the road,” Fischer says.

The first thing he notes is less air pollution. “I think it’s worth the Government thinking about [that],” he says. “It’s not only the trucks that cause the problem ... there’s too many cars on the road.”

The drivers are both feared as a source of infection, and concerned about catching the virus themselves

The second thing is disobedience of social distancing rules. “You see cars on the road that are definitely not out there for work... you see people socialising in big groups,” he says. “I think a lot of the restrictions coming in now are because people don’t listen. If they had just done what they said at the beginning, they wouldn’t have to close down so much as they have to now.”

Fischer is speaking over the phone from his ferry cabin. Each round trip he makes between Ireland and Denmark has four such sea journeys: across the Irish Sea, and between England and the continent. In all it takes five to six days.

Usually on the ferries, drivers who know each other gather to share meals and talk. But there is an increasing awareness of the risk of infection – one driver was spotted on the Netherlands to England crossing in a full mask and gloves. Cruise ships have been infamous incubators of the virus, and drivers are concerned that the crossings could be a risk. Food provision has been scaled back; buffets are totally out. Staff rush from table to table with disinfectant.

“I don’t use masks, I don’t use gloves, but I wash my hands a lot when I’m on the ferry,” says Fischer. He now eats alone in his cabin.

Europe’s truck drivers are an aging workforce. The industry has been plagued with staff shortages for years as drivers retire, a phenomenon that has caused delivery bottlenecks in the past. The pandemic hit the industry with a double blow of sudden long traffic jams at borders and consumers stocking up causing a run on supplies.

“It’s almost like a war or something,” said Seamus Leheny of the Freight Transport Association (FTA). “The job has to be done, and we’ll do it. Because without us...” he trailed off. “What we don’t want is the virus getting into our workforce, affecting drivers.”

Driving limits

To keep the supply chains going, EU driving hours limits – normally considered essential to prevent accidents caused by tiredness – have been relaxed. Truckers can now drive up to 11 hours a day, 60 in a week, and 96 in a fortnight, with shorter and less frequent mandatory rest periods.

On some borders, drivers face health screenings. In the frenzy of the initial closures, some were told to quarantine or were turned back due to their nationality. Drivers told The Irish Times of delays on the Danish and Italian borders, and between the Netherlands to Belgium, where authorities have reduced traffic to a single lane so they can check all cars.

But the worst traffic in the EU has been on the borders of Poland. Initial jams were days-long, and it still took five hours to cross the German-Polish border on Monday, according to the European Transport Workers’ Federation. 

The queues make the trucks more vulnerable to theft, and to stowaways, such as on the approach to Calais, where people hoping to cross to Britain often try to hide among cargo. The jams also increase costs for consumers: the FTA estimates running costs for the largest vehicles to be €1.10 a minute.

The drivers are both feared as a source of infection, and concerned about catching the virus themselves. In some places, sanitiser has become mandatory.

“I think the worst thing about this corona for the drivers, is [that] a lot of places ... closed down the toilets and the showers,” Fischer says. “In Denmark, they closed everything down; restaurants are only open for takeaway. It’s different from country to country. In Sweden nothing is closed, everything is open.”

In a pinch, Fischer can buy instant meals from a supermarket and heat them, because he has a microwave in his truck. “I can survive anyway,” he jokes.

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