Stranded truckers spend Christmas in their cabs

Anna MALPAS
·3-min read

Besides the occasional miniature tree and paper chains hung from cabs, there was little festive cheer for the thousands of truckers stuck on an old airfield in southeast England on Christmas Eve.

Several thousand cargo trucks have been trapped for days around the southern English port of Dover since France closed borders with the UK in a bid to stop the spread of a new coronavirus strain.

Army personnel were going from lorry to lorry, conducting rapid coronavirus tests that give a result in some 40 minutes as part of measures to try to start up travel again.

Pawel, a 34-year-old driver from Poland, had just been tested and said his plan was to go to Folkestone 26 miles (42 kilometres) away, take the Eurotunnel and go home to his family.

"It's impossible," he told AFP of his three days at the Manston airfield site, on the outskirts of Ramsgate, where many trucks have been parked while the travel crisis is sorted out.

"I've no words to describe what we're feeling here. All of our families are waiting for us, heartbreaking."

He said that drivers were furious with France for shutting their borders in response to the emergence of a new variant of potentially more contagious coronavirus.

On his way back, he said he would retaliate by not stopping there "for the food, for petrol, for anything".

"Ninety percent of people here also not going to stop in France," he said.

- Hot food and horns -

On the airfield, a cold December wind blew in from the Channel.

The poorly lit site, run by the Department of Transport with the help of the armed forces, was a bewildering maze of lorries.

Drivers were hoping to get to ports after spending days going nowhere but said it was unclear which ferries would run to clear the backlog, both on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.

At one point, they sounded their horns together in frustration.

There were free catering vans ranging from burgers to Thai food.

Some said they were unhappy about the food but others said it was plentiful, topped up with volunteer groups bringing round hot food, including from the Polish community.

"That was very nice, we were so thankful for this," said Pawel.

There were also mobile toilets that seemed clean, though drivers complained they were full.

"We got stuck, it's been three days," said Ukrainian driver from Kiev, Valery, 37, who had not been tested yet.

"They herded us in here and told us to stay. We need to get home already. Maybe we will make it for New Year's?

"There are no facilities, no showers, nothing," he complained.

- Long wait -

Other drivers said there were showers but it was a long walk to find them.

Radko Ivanov, 56, from Bulgaria, angrily asked troops to be tested and complained that other drivers in smaller trucks were manoeuvring to jump the queue.

"The situation is terrible," he said, complaining of a lack of organisation. "I must guess what I got to do."

As of lunchtime on Christmas Eve, there were still 3,200 lorries at the site and at least 1,800 drivers had been tested, according to the armed forces.

Altogether 320 military personnel conducting testing at Manston, at the port of Dover and on the M20 motorway where more lorries were waiting.

At Manston there were three army units including a deployment of engineers from nearby Maidstone.

Two Sikh volunteer groups were distributing food in the evening on the M20, where many other stranded drivers were parked.

am/phz/pma