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Truckers Shun U.K. Ports to Avoid Brexit Red Tape

Truckers Shun U.K. Ports to Avoid Brexit Red Tape

British ports expected gridlock after post-Brexit trade rules began on Jan. 1. Instead, some are nearly empty as truckers stay away, reluctant to spend hours waiting for newly required export documents.

Truckers Shun U.K. Ports to Avoid Brexit Red Tape
Credit…Phil Hatcher-Moore for The New York Times

  • Jan. 27, 2021, 5:00 a.m. ET

HOLYHEAD, Wales — Beneath swirling gray clouds, Bryan Anderson leaned from the cab window of his truck to vent his frustration at the new paperwork that had already delayed his journey through Britain’s second-largest ferry port by half a day.

“It’s a nightmare,” Mr. Anderson said, explaining how he spent hours waiting at a depot 250 miles away for export documents required because of Brexit. The delay meant he reached Holyhead, in Wales, too late for the ferry he planned to take to Dublin, and for the next one, too.

“I am roughly 12 hours behind schedule,” he said as he prepared, finally, to drive aboard the Stena Adventurer to Dublin to drop off a consignment of parcels for Ireland’s mail service.

Fear of hassles and red tape stemming from the introduction of the new rules governing Britain’s trade with the European Union that came into effect on Jan. 1 led to dire predictions of overwhelming gridlock at British ports.

But, so far, the opposite has happened. Apart from hardy souls like Mr. Anderson, truckers are increasingly shunning ports like Holyhead. They are fearful of the mountains of paperwork now required for journeys that last month involved little more than driving on to a ferry in one country and off it in another.

Truckers Shun U.K. Ports to Avoid Brexit Red Tape
Credit…Phil Hatcher-Moore for The New York Times

On Thursday, just a couple of dozen other trucks stood waiting for the same ferry as Mr. Anderson in a vast but almost empty port-side parking lot. Holyhead is operating at half its normal capacity and staff have been placed on furlough.

“It’s too much hassle to go through,” Mr. Anderson said.

After months of uncertainty and tense negotiations, Prime Minister Boris Johnson finally struck a trade deal with the European Union on Christmas Eve. So when Britain left Europe’s single market and customs union on Jan. 1, it avoided the chaos seen during a dress-rehearsal border closure by French officials in December.

Yet the old system that allowed frictionless travel to and from European nations is over. Despite claims by its supporters that Brexit would reduce bureaucracy, companies need to produce millions of customs declarations as well as new documentation like health certifications for food and proof of origin for a wide variety of goods. Shipments of mixed goods — like the parcels Mr. Anderson was carrying — can mean a plethora of paperwork for drivers to cover everything being carried.

Across Britain, the impact of the rules has caught traders by surprise, setting off a chain reaction that has threatened some jobs and livelihoods.

Credit…Phil Hatcher-Moore for The New York Times

Outraged over costly delays, Scottish shellfish exporters blockaded the Parliament in London in protest. A truck load of chips destined for a supermarket in Northern Ireland was held up for two days as the truck company sought to prove the origin of the potatoes they were made with, according to a British lawmaker. And more than 600 truck drivers have been fined for breaking a rule designed to prevent congestion that requires them to have a permit to approach Britain’s busiest port, Dover in Kent.

Under the new rules, truckers must log their consignments with the authorities before reaching ports. Relatively few arrive without the paperwork — just 7 percent at Holyhead, according to the port.

But that is because many are stuck elsewhere awaiting papers.

The new system has also raised questions about the future of one of Europe’s busiest trade routes, between Ireland, which remains part of the European Union, and continental Europe.

The quickest route for trucks is generally via a ferry from Dublin to Holyhead, then east to Dover on England’s coast, and from there a short ferry trip to Calais in France.

Before the Brexit changes, that journey via the “land bridge” was cheap and reliable, required almost no paperwork and allowed trucks to drop off loads along the way.

Credit…Phil Hatcher-Moore for The New York Times

But that route has been obstructed by a thicket of bureaucracy, and many companies are opting for direct services between Ireland and France to stay within the European Union.

Whether this reflects teething troubles or a fundamental shift is unclear, and the changes have been welcomed in some quarters.

Some environmental campaigners hope the drop in trade will be permanent and reduce the number of trucks crisscrossing Britain.

Port operators had expected a drop-off in trade as companies emptied stockpiles they had built in December in case there was no trade deal. The pandemic has also hit commerce and tourism, just as companies are adjusting to Brexit-era form filling.

But there are fears that the hit to ports like Holyhead may have lasting implications.

“Very loud alarm bells are ringing,” said Rhun ap Iorwerth, a member of the Welsh Senedd, or Parliament, for Plaid Cymru, a party that advocates independence for Wales.

“It is clear that trade is down massively through the port,” he said. “I hope this is a temporary phenomenon but I fear that new patterns of trading are being established here and I worry for jobs. The smaller the traffic through the port, the fewer people you need to work at the port.”

Virginia Crosbie, a lawmaker with Mr. Johnson’s Conservative Party, said she expected “that the fluctuations in transport patterns we are seeing at the moment will be short term,” citing the benefits of the “land-bridge” route through England.

Credit…Phil Hatcher-Moore for The New York Times

Others are more doubtful, noting that eight weekend ferry services from Holyhead to Dublin have already been canceled, while those between Ireland and France have been ramped up.

“Given the choice, I think a lot of that traffic has switched to the direct routes,” said William Calderbank, port operations manager at Holyhead, which is operated by Stena Line , adding that, while he expects much business to return, some of it will not.

To add to Holyhead’s problems, it is also losing business to ports in Scotland and northern England that offer routes to Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom, that generally require less bureaucracy.

It now makes little sense to send goods destined for Northern Ireland through Holyhead and then by truck north through Ireland — a popular route previously.

And while companies should get better at completing paperwork, they face additional changes in the future. The British government is phasing in its own post-Brexit rules, waving most imports through.

But, from July, it will apply full controls as the Irish and French do now.

“We are only in phase one of Brexit, we have another one coming in July,” said Mr. Calderbank.

Credit…Phil Hatcher-Moore for The New York Times

That will add to the burden for companies who already face complex regulations.

Andrew Kinsella, managing director of Gwynedd Shipping, a transportation company headquartered in Holyhead, described how one consignment was held in Ireland for seven hours while officials questioned whether it should be certified as a dairy product because of milk contained in cookies’ chocolate chips.

Holyhead “is a ghost town,” he said. “You don’t see the normal steady stream of vehicles every day; you are lucky to see a handful of trucks when the ferries arrive.”

At Road King, a Holyhead truck stop, another driver, Rob Lucas, was still parked midafternoon at the spot where he arrived at 6 a.m. to await clearance to take a load into the port.

He had no idea when the text message authorizing him to move would come but did know that the delay had already wrecked his next day’s schedule.

Credit…Phil Hatcher-Moore for The New York Times

“The only way I can explain it is to say that everything used to run freely, there was no waiting for paperwork; but last Friday I was held up five hours in Kent,” he said.

“We are all stuck in limbo — one of our lads was here for four days early in January,” Mr. Lucas said. “It’s terrible, absolutely terrible,” he added, and “I can only see it getting worse before it gets better.”

Truck Jam Eases at U.K. Port Days After France Reopens Border

Truck Jam Eases at U.K. Port Days After France Reopens Border

About 1,600 trucks were still waiting to cross the border on Saturday morning, while 8,000 had crossed into France, a British official said.

Truck Jam Eases at U.K. Port Days After France Reopens Border
Credit…Peter Nicholls/Reuters

  • Dec. 26, 2020, 9:07 a.m. ET

LONDON — A huge truck jam at the Port of Dover in England eased further on Saturday, days after France lifted a border blockade imposed over fears of a fast-spreading variant of the coronavirus.

As many as 6,000 trucks had lined up at the height of the days-long jam, and many drivers spent a bleak Christmas sleeping in their vehicles as France demanded that all those crossing the border show proof of a negative coronavirus test.

“It was shocking to see that in a G7 country like the U.K., that such things would happen,” said Benjamin Richtzenhain, a traveler who crossed the English Channel on Thursday. He said that the authorities had communicated poorly to those in the logjam and that access to water, bathrooms and blankets had been limited.

The misery at the port added to a general sense of gloom permeating the holiday season in the country. Christmas came scarcely a week after the government announced the presence of a fast-spreading coronavirus variant sweeping the country and imposed widespread lockdowns and other tight restrictions.

A last-minute Brexit deal with the European Union on Thursday meant that Britain narrowly avoided crashing out of the bloc without an agreement, but also drove home a sense of isolation. And dozens of countries have restricted travel from Britain in the hopes of shutting out the new virus variant, disrupting plans during one of Europe’s biggest holidays.

By Saturday morning, officials from the transportation department said that about 1,600 vehicles remained in the traffic jam while at least 8,000 had crossed the English Channel via the Eurotunnel since Wednesday, when the authorities ramped up coronavirus testing.

At the port, officials worked intensively on Saturday to test the remaining drivers in hopes of clearing the backup. More than 15,526 have been tested, with 36 coming up positive, the department said.

Hundreds more military personnel were deployed on Friday to reinforce testing efforts and to distribute food and water provided by an array of organizations.

But almost a week after the blockages of sea, rail and air routes, the magnitude of the task made it impossible to predict when the delays would clear and whether drivers would spend yet another day in limbo and another night sleeping in their trucks.

Thousands of police officers, civilian testers, council planners and port workers gave up their Christmas to help reunite drivers with loved ones, said Grant Shapps, Britain’s transportation secretary, who praised their efforts.

London’s airports were fairly quiet on Saturday, with no signs of a rush to travel a day after the United States imposed new restrictions on people flying in from Britain. Starting on Monday, passengers to the United States must submit evidence of a negative coronavirus test.

A spokesman for Heathrow Airport said that significant numbers of travelers were not expected on Saturday, and that the day after Christmas was typically a quiet travel day.

Even with the new restrictions around the world, France and Japan reported their first cases of the coronavirus variant on Friday in people arriving from Britain.

Trucks Stuck in U.K. After France Border Closure Begin Moving

Trucks Stuck at U.K. Port Begin Moving, but Many Face a Roadside Christmas

France closed the border to help limit the spread of a coronavirus variant. With the border now reopened, testing thousands of drivers and clearing the backlog of freight will take some time.

Trucks Stuck in U.K. After France Border Closure Begin Moving
Credit…Andy Rain/EPA, via Shutterstock

  • Dec. 24, 2020

LONDON — Trucks began boarding ferries in Dover on Thursday to cross the English Channel for the first time in four days, a step toward ending a thousands-deep traffic jam that piled up at the border after France banned crossings from Britain to limit the spread of a coronavirus variant.

Sea, rail and air routes had been reopened more than 24 hours earlier, after London agreed to conduct virus tests for the drivers, but the backlog only began to clear on Thursday after the British authorities set up screening and started clearing the healthy to travel.

Members of the British military were dispatched to help test the thousands of drivers, who must show proof of a negative coronavirus test before being allowed to board ferries to France.

The magnitude of the task meant that movement remained slow on Thursday morning. It could take days to fully clear the logjam, officials said, meaning that many drivers were unlikely to make it home for Christmas Day.

Although the tremendous backlog of freight was rooted in fears about the coronavirus, some commentators had seen in the mammoth lines a portent of what might be lying in wait after Britain concludes its withdrawal from the European Union. But those concerns seemed to have receded on Thursday when London and Brussels announced they had reached broad agreement on a post-Brexit trade deal.

After days of confusion, anger and chaos in and around Dover, however, that will be of scant consolation to the hordes of drivers left stranded after the border was abruptly closed, leaving them with nowhere to go and little access to food or public facilities.

Many have been forced to sleep in their rigs for several nights, and even with the route open, exasperation was on show on Thursday, with some truckers spelling out the word “HELP” with traffic cones, according to a picture in The Guardian.

“It’s like a horror movie,” said Ravinder Singh, chief executive of Khalsa Aid, which has been distributing meals to drivers stuck on the highway. “For them it’s a prison: They can’t go anywhere,” he added.

Trucks Stuck in U.K. After France Border Closure Begin Moving
Credit…Andrew Testa for The New York Times

Amid concerns that the holidays would cause further delays, Grant Shapps, the British transport secretary, said on Thursday that he had agreed with the French authorities to keep open the border controls at Dover, in southeastern England, and at Calais, across the English Channel in France, over Christmas.

About 6,000 trucks remained stuck in Dover and on the approach to the port on Thursday, with 4,000 of them parked at a disused airport that has been turned into a holding area, the BBC reported. According to Mr. Shapps, as of midday, 2,367 tests had been carried out on stranded drivers, with three positive results so far.

Testing was fully mobilized at the port and at the disused airport, a spokeswoman for the Port of Dover said. She said that about 100 freight vehicles entered the port on Wednesday night, and that many were expected to join on Thursday, as the authorities try to get as many trucks as possible onto ferries.

The buildup of vehicles will take time to clear, prompting the government in Kent, the county that includes Dover, to work with aid organizations to provide food and water to drivers. Supermarkets and local businesses in the southeast of England have also made donations, council officials said, adding that more portable toilets had also been installed along the highway.

Credit…Simon Dawson/Reuters

Roger Gough, the leader of the Kent council, said in a statement that he hoped the situation would steadily improve.

“I have, however, deep sympathy for those for whom this will come too late to spend Christmas with their families,” he added.

Mr. Singh, of Khalsa Aid, described the last few days as surreal. He said that when the weather permitted, drivers from an array of European countries had sat outside their rigs on a usually busy highway or walked up and down the lines of traffic.

Tensions were higher at the airport, Mr. Singh said, where footage showed drivers remonstrating angrily with police officers on Wednesday.

Attempts to control the coronavirus variant continued in Britain on Wednesday, with the government imposing tighter rules on much of England. Britain reported 39,237 new infections on Wednesday — the highest figure since the outbreak began — and 744 deaths.

On Thursday, China said it would suspend flights to and from Britain, joining more than 50 other governments that have imposed some form of travel restrictions since Saturday.

Eshe Nelson contributed reporting.