British Army helps to eliminate the backlog of drivers blocked by viruses

LONDON (AP) – About 1,000 British soldiers were spending Christmas day trying to clear a huge backlog of truck drivers trapped in south-east England after France briefly closed its border with the UK, then demanded coronavirus tests amid fears of a new, apparently more contagious, variant of the virus.

Although some 4,000 international truck drivers are spending yet another day confined to their taxis, some progress was evident on Friday, with traffic around the Dover harbor on the English Channel moving in an orderly manner for the extra ferries that were placed for the short crossing to Calais, in the north of France. The railway operator Eurotunnel was also back in action, offering a way back to France.

The military was directing traffic and helping with a mass testing program for drivers, who are expected to turn negative to enter France. French firefighters were also enlisted to help the military test drivers for the coronavirus. Poland’s Territorial Defense Force has also sent reinforcements to assist with testing and food distribution.

British transport secretary Grant Shapps said he had instructed the army to take control of the tests as part of efforts to get “foreign carriers home with their families as soon as possible”.

Transportation department officials said that all but three of the tests performed so far have been negative. Those with a positive test are receiving accommodation. Most tests are being conducted in a disabled airfield at Manston Airport, 33 kilometers from Dover.

France closed its border for 48 hours with the United Kingdom last Sunday, after British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said that a variant of the virus that is 70% more transmissible is causing the rapid spread of infections in London and surrounding areas. As a result, the capital and many other parts of England have seen tight blocking restrictions and family vacation meetings canceled.

Free food and drink was being sent to the arrested truck drivers and more than 250 portable toilets were placed in Manston, with another 32 placed along the congested M20 road. The British coastguard said its teams in the Dover area have so far delivered 3,000 hot meals, 600 pizzas and 2,985 packed lunches.

“The most comforting thing is that food is arriving in Manston, and I have to say a big thank you to everyone who offered to help drivers withstand cold conditions in the days leading up to Christmas,” said Duncan Buchanan of Great Britain Brittany Road Transport Association.

The mood among the arrested drivers appeared to be mostly optimistic, especially compared to the anger earlier this week about the situation and the lack of facilities.

The virus has been responsible for more than 1.7 million confirmed deaths worldwide. On Friday, the UK recorded another 570 deaths related to the virus, totaling 70,195, the second highest number of deaths in Europe, after Italy.

On Saturday, Britain is extending stricter blocking restrictions to more areas, while officials are trying to contain the spread of the new variant. In the past two days, the UK recorded its two highest numbers of daily infections, just under 40,000. This is fueling fears that the country’s beloved National Health Service will face acute capacity problems in its hospitals soon and thousands of others will die of the virus.

In a video message to the nation, Johnson said that this Christmas “was not about gifts, or turkey or brandy butter”, but about hope, in the form of coronavirus vaccines being distributed and more vaccines being developed.

“We know that there will be people alive next Christmas, people we love, alive next Christmas precisely because we made the sacrifice and we don’t celebrate normally this Christmas,” said the Prime Minister.

Johnson said on Thursday that more than 800,000 people in Britain received the first dose of the vaccine developed by the American pharmaceutical company Pfizer and the German biotechnology company BioNTech. The United Kingdom was the first country in the world to approve the vaccine and started inoculation for healthcare professionals and people over 80 on December 8.


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