At the start of the busiest holiday weekend since 2019, queues began to build at the port of Dover on Friday. As the weekend went on gridlock spread to the Eurotunnel terminal at Folkestone.
So what caused the chaos in Kent – and will it continue during the week and into the future? These are the key questions and answers.
How do international formalities work between Kent and France?
Before they can travel across to France, motorists and truck drivers must clear the “juxtaposed” French border at Dover or Folkestone – which means formalities are completed on UK soil, with no frontier on arrival in France. But the formalities mean queues can build up.
How are things running after the weekend?
More smoothly at both Dover and Folkestone, but there is still some catching up to do – many holidaymakers yesterday encountered long delays and some decided to stay overnight in Kent. The backlog has to be cleared swiftly because there is an awful lot of freight traffic that needs to get across to France.
Were such chaotic scenes predicted?
No one quite knew how the busiest weekend for outbound travel since 2019 – and Brexit – would play out. The expected rush last year didn’t materialise because at very short notice, just before the usual great getaway the UK government brought in mandatory quarantine for returning holidaymakers from France. So the new post-Brexit rules have simply not been tested at scale before.
How much responsibility lies with Eurotunnel, the Port of Dover and the ferry firms – did they fail to plan?
I see no evidence of that. These organisations are single-minded about process – acting as conveyor belts, one at Dover, one at Folkestone, to get people, cars, buses and trucks from the UK to Continental Europe as swiftly and smoothly as possible.
They prepared forecasts on how many vehicles and people were expected, and set up systems to cope. “We’ve been planning for the summer season for months,” I was told by Doug Bannister, chief executive of the Port of Dover.
So what went wrong?
The first sign that things were seriously awry was a statement put out by the Port of Dover at 7.30am on Friday morning. As the big weekend rush began on Friday, the port warned that holidays could be ruined because of “woefully inadequate” staffing by French border officials, the Police aux Frontières.
The authority declared a “critical incident”. Mr Bannister said that the failure to deploy enough staff early in the day meant queues began to build swiftly.
Meanwhile a serious accident on the M20, the main approach to both Folkestone and Dover, closed the motorway. Drivers tried to find alternative routes and soon every usable route was gridlocked.
As Friday wore on, families heading for the continent on holiday found themselves stuck in cars for many hours. Local residents struggled to make their way through the congestion that built up during the day.
By Saturday the French passport booths at Dover were fully staffed, but by then the backlog added extra pressure. Traffic in the area of the Eurotunnel terminal at Folkestone built up and holidaymakers were unwittingly stuck in interminable queues – with no facilities, food or water.
So a perfect storm – but are the post-Brexit rules a factor?
Not according to the Conservative leadership contenders, who both called the delays “unacceptable”. They blame the French.
The foreign secretary, Liz Truss, who hopes to be prime minister within six weeks, said: “We need action from France to build up capacity at the border to limit any further disruption for British tourists and to ensure this appalling situation is avoided in future.”
Her rival Rishi Sunak, the former chancellor, told the French “to stop blaming Brexit and start getting the staff required to match demand”.
But observations of cars at the border checks by The Independent indicated a typical time of 90 seconds for a family of four in a car to have their documents checked.
With an average of 3.5 people in each vehicle, that means a typical wait of 80 seconds – probably three times longer than before the post-Brexit rules took effect.
What has changed for travellers after Brexit?
In the Withdrawal Agreement, the UK government asked for British travellers to be treated as “third country nationals”. Previously French border officers could check only that the passport was valid and that it belonged to the individual.
Checks were almost always cursory: someone in the car could hold up passports and the uninterested official would wave the vehicle through.
Now, because the UK chose to have an external border of the European Union in Kent, frontier police are required as a minimum to check every single passport, and stamp it with the day of departure to France.
They are also supposed to check:
- The purpose of the visit
- That the traveller has not stayed more than 90 days in the past 180 days
- The traveller has an onward or return ticket and sufficient funds for the planned length of stay.
Those obligations have been almost entirely overlooked.
But a former director general of the UK Border Force says the delays have nothing to do with Brexit?
In the Telegraph, Tony Smith writes: “Anecdotal evidence from travellers entering France suggests that occasional questions may be asked whilst the passport is being scanned, and a stamp is now being applied. But this process does not add much to the transaction times that applied before Brexit.”
But Doug Bannister, boss of the Port of Dover, estimates the transaction time has increased threefold – which is why he installed more booths to boost capacity.
Will travellers encounter similar problems later in the summer?
Delays should not be so extreme. This was the heaviest demand weekend of the summer. Over the next few weeks, there will be “leakage” to other forms of transport: alternative ferry routes where the passport checks happen in France not the UK, Eurostar trains or airlines.
But the basic problem remains that the road network in east Kent and the port infrastructure – which was specified and built with no thought that it would become a frontier as hard as those the EU has with Russia and Turkey.