French President Emmanuel Macron was accused by senior politicians of playing politics over the lorry blockade of Britain, jeopardising good relations and the economy.
The French leader finds his position weakened in the European Union as other countries are said to regard his decision to shut the border, after a faster-spreading variant of the Covid-19 virus was identified in England, as a significant overreaction.
After a two-day impasse, a deal was struck on Tuesday night to allow traffic to move from the English port of Dover to mainland Europe. However, hauliers scuffled with police on Wednesday morning as lorries began to trickle out of the port and tensions increased throughout the day.
Hauliers will be tested for the virus before being allowed to board ferries or the cross-Channel rail service to the Continent, where cases of the new mutation were identified.
Mr Macron’s stance came as talks on a Brexit trade deal hung in the balance over agreeing fishing rights that involve the large French trawler fleet.
“I’m afraid this was an example of politics spilling into the hardship of managing this pandemic,” British MP Tobias Ellwood told The National. “It is unfortunate that as negotiations reached a critical juncture, that this action should muddy the waters.”
Others suggest the decision was Mr Macron attempting to show toughness as a ploy ahead of the French presidential election next year.
“I think Marcon’s slightly overplayed his hand and caused a huge amount of angst that was totally unnecessary,” former MEP Richard Tice said. “It’s just utter madness.”
There is also anger in Whitehall that while Britain was quick to inform the rest of the world about the new virulent strain of coronavirus, it was punished with the French blockade and flight bans to more than 50 countries.
“We are global leaders in genome research and transparency, which allowed us to be so upfront about this mutation … but we have been penalised for our openness,” a Whitehall source told The National.
With more than 4,000 lorries held up in Britain and food shortages expected as a result, there is a suggestion that the delays are an example of what could happen if there is a no-deal Brexit and World Trade Organisation rules are imposed.
“This demonstrates that the realities on the ground are very, very different when WTO might come into play,” said Mr Ellwood, chairman of the defence committee. “You could easily see that unforeseen problems will arise and this shows how quickly such a vital arterial route can be jammed.”
While some argue that the French were responsible in acting to prevent the virus spreading across Europe, the move reaffirmed the potential disruption on January 1 if there is no deal.
“This is just a tiny peek at what could happen either in the first few days or first few weeks of the transition period ending, and it would be compounded by tariffs and a no deal,” said Ian Wright of the Food and Drink Federation. “A lot of companies would have intended to stockpile in that post-Christmas period … that may now be compromised.”
A British government source told The Times that the ban on UK freight was unnecessary. “The risk of transmission from a solitary lorry driver is very low. France was left isolated by the European Commission on this.”
The view that it was a political ploy was echoed by lorry drivers stranded at the main Channel crossing in Kent. “This is all about Brexit, I don’t think it’s anything to do with the virus,” said Peter Graham, 51, from north-east England. “France are trying to blackmail us into doing a deal or saying, ‘this is what it will be like for you’ if not.”
It is expected that the government will use up to 200 British soldiers to conduct Covid-19 tests on lorry drivers as part of French demand to allow them to cross the border.
It is unclear whether the backlog will be cleared up in time for Christmas. At the port of Dover there was little sign of any tests – or much support for stranded drivers.
“They talk about some Covid test but there are no Covid tests,” Blazej Pankiewicz, a driver from Torun, Poland, said in Dover, surrounded by angry drivers.
He said he was extremely sad to be missing Christmas back home with his family, which had already gathered.
“Home for Christmas? Forget it,” said Laurent Beghin, a French lorry driver who delivered a cargo of paint to the UK on Sunday and was still stuck in England on Wednesday.