LONDON — Thousands of truck drivers stranded in the U.K. on Wednesday were offered a faint glimmer of hope they could be home for Christmas after European officials eased travel restrictions imposed in response to the emergence of a mutant strain of coronavirus.
The British military has been called in to help clear the gridlock caused by convoys of trucks snaked on roads near Dover, the main ferry port for France and the continent.
“We’re putting in place the infrastructure. So the armed forces will be [Covid testing] in the first instance to help us to set that up and to get through some of the backlog that you’ve seen,” Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick told Sky News.
Paris and London agreed late Tuesday that drivers testing negative for Covid-19 could board ferries to France. The decision came after much of the world shut its borders to Britain to contain the new mutation.
The Road Haulage Association estimated there were up to 10,000 trucks backed-up near the port.
The new Covid variant is apparently so infectious it prompted Prime Minister Boris Johnson to effectively cancel Christmas for millions.
The discovery of the variant, which could be 70 percent more transmissible than the original, in places such as Denmark, Belgium, Italy and Australia just months before vaccines are expected to be widely available, has sowed a fresh wave of fear around the world.
In Dover frustrations spilled over on Wednesday as a few angry drivers clashed briefly with police. Many drivers honked their horns in unison and flashed their lights in frustration.
Although officials gave the greenlight for trucks to get moving, Raluca Marian of the International Road Transport Union, a world road transport body, told the BBC the logistics of mass-testing would be “a disaster.”
Marian warned that 30-minute tests for thousands of drivers may not see lines clear until New Year’s Eve.
“We are happy that finally we have a deal, that the borders are open but at the same time this testing is a big challenge for us and we don’t think it will work — the backlog can’t be cleared,” she said.
A kind gesture, in the form of curry, eased the wait for some.
Members of the U.K.-based Sikh international relief organization, Khalsa Aid, handed out bottles of water, snacks and 800 hot meals of rice and chickpea curry to drivers, they said on Twitter, winning public praise in the season of goodwill.
Download the NBC News app for breaking news and politics
The border chaos comes just days before Britain is due to finally leave the European Union on Dec. 31 with both sides still hashing out an eleventh-hour trade deal.
Panic buying was underway in some supermarkets in the capital, London, which is under England’s strictest lockdown measures, while Brexit is expected to cause further disruption in January, when a full customs border comes into force.
On Tuesday, the European Commission advised that a blanket travel ban from the U.K. should be eased and people heading home should be allowed to do so. However, border controls are governed by national policy, so each E.U. country can make its own rules.
Reuters contributed to this report.
Matthew Mulligan contributed.