The summer holiday getaway turned to chaos on Friday when a “critical incident” was declared at Dover and passengers were warned they faced six-hour delays getting through passport control.
Only six of the 12 drive-through booths were reported to be open this morning, with the French authorities accused of “woefully inadequate” staffing levels. Extra checks required post-Brexit and Covid restrictions were blamed for it taking longer for the French authorities to process documents.
The British and French governments were alerted to the problems. P&O ferries advised passengers to allow at least six hours to get through security. Doug Bannister, chief executive of the Port of Dover, advised travellers to check with their travel firm before leaving home. He told BBC Radio Kent: “We have got a critical incident underway. We have been badly let down this morning by the French Border — insufficient resources and much slower than normal transactions, which is leading to significant congestion around the port. It’s going to be a very difficult day around the port. It is so immensely frustrating. We have been working flat out for a couple of months to welcome people back through the Port of Dover and enjoy their holidays.
“The ferry operators have pulled out all the stops. We have pulled out all the stops. It came down to this one moment this morning and it’s failed. Right now I would probably consider holding off heading for the border at this point in time until more is known. It is really difficult to get into town this morning.
“We will do our best to get everything opened up and running again as quickly as possible but this is a significant challenge.”
Natalie Elphicke, Tory MP for Dover, claimed French border officers “didn’t turn up for work”. She said: “This has caused massive delays. More French officers are reported to be arriving. It’s vital that the French passport controls are fully staffed during this peak holiday period.”
Roads approaching Dover were gridlocked. “Operation Brock”, the system of stacking lorries heading for the Continent on one carriageway of the M20, was reintroduced, despite Kent traffic officials admitting it was “sub-optimal”.
It meant that cars heading for Dover and the Eurotunnel at Folkestone, and those heading west towards London, had to share the other carriageway, with only two lanes each and a 50mph speed limit.
There were also delays on the M2, while Dover’s traffic access protocol (Tap) scheme was implemented on the A20 in a bid to minimise the problems caused to the town by queuing traffic.
Families told of being stuck for hours within sight of the border control — unable to reach their ferries, which were “free-flowing”.
P&O Ferries told passengers: “Please be aware that there is heavy traffic at border control in the port of Dover.
“If you are booked to travel today please allow at least six hours to clear all security checks.”
One traveller, Steve, said he had left his flat in Dover at 3am and had only managed to drive 2km and was yet to get through immigration. “Four-and-a-half hours later I’m sitting in a queue at the frontier control. I have missed the 6am ferry,” he said.
“They are tweeting every now and then saying they will put people on the next available one but it’s so chaotic here I don’t even know if the next available one is going to be today. Dover itself is just gridlock.”
Chris Parker of DFDS Seaways said passengers who hadn’t booked would be better waiting until Sunday. “Don’t come to the port, you will only add to the congestion and slow everybody else down, including yourself,” he said.
Eurotunnel said it was “really busy” and back to 2019 levels at its Folkestone terminal. It had no spare capacity to take passengers trying to divert from Dover.
Spokesman John Keefe said it was also suffering from slower processing by French border control staff.
“Travel has changed post-Covid, post-Brexit, and people need to familiarise themselves with that,” he said. “It does take a little bit longer to get through borders. Bring games, bring food, bring drinks.”
But he added: “Whatever happens, we will get everybody to France today.”
Elsewhere across the country, fuel protests were predicted to bring further misery on “Frantic Friday” as holidaymakers sought to make an early escape as the school term ended.
An image posted on Facebook group Fuel Price Stand Against Tax suggested demonstrations will be held “nationwide”, including in Birmingham, Cardiff, Liverpool, London and Manchester.
Avon and Somerset Police warned that “slow-moving roadblocks” were expected on parts of the M4, M5, M32 and A38. Meanwhile, one of the Dartford Crossing’s northbound tunnels had to be closed due to an oil spill from a broken-down vehicle.
The RAC said it was set to be the busiest summer getaway in a decade, with 18.8 million leisure trips by the end of Monday. Rod Dennis, of the RAC, said: “It’s a pretty miserable start to the getaway for most drivers.” The M25 is expected to be one of the worst affected motorways, in particular between Bromley and Dartford, Hertfordshire and the M3 and the M23 and M40.