The first trucks began boarding ferries at the Port of Dover to cross the English Channel again on Thursday, making a bigger step to clear a logjam in freight traffic more than 24 hours after France lifted a ban imposed over fears about a variant of the virus circulating in Britain.
Traffic remained slow on Thursday morning, as truck drivers must show proof of a negative coronavirus test before boarding the ferries.
The abrupt border closure left thousands of Europe-bound trucks stuck in and around Dover, a critical trade link with Europe because of the short crossing to France, and many have been waiting in their rigs for days. But it could days to clear the blockages, Grant Shapps, the British transportation secretary said, according to the British Broadcasting Corporation. About 6,000 trucks remain in the area, 4,000 of them parked at an airport that has been turned into a holding area, the BBC said. The drivers appeared to use traffic cones to write out “Help,” The Guardian reported.
Ferries working to get freight and drivers to continental Europe will sail on Christmas and Boxing Day, Mr. Shapps said, adding that the military and contact tracers were working with French firefighters, who had brought 10,000 tests to Dover, to clear the backlog from the border closure. Trying to assuage earlier concerns that some drivers would be trapped before the Christmas holiday, Mr. Shapps said that borders at the Eurotunnel, Dover and Calais, France, would remain open through Christmas to help hauliers and citizens return home.
A spokeswoman for the Port of Dover said that testing was now fully mobilized at the port and in the airport. She said that about 100 freight vehicles entered the port Wednesday night, and many more should join them today, as the port attempts to clear the backlog as quickly as possible.
One ferry company, P & O Ferries, said Thursday morning that the area remained “heavily gridlocked,” adding that a road to the port was still blocked, but that the first convoys of freight were released from a holding area in Manston, England, during the night. They added the that the authorities were working to increase testing capabilities, and that ferries were scheduled to depart. Officials have cautioned truck drivers not already in the Dover area to avoid the region.
Several organizations, including the British branch of the Salvation Army and Khalsa Aid, said they had prepared hundreds of bagged meals to feed stranded truck drivers.
Ravinder Singh, chief executive of Khalsa Aid, a nongovernmental organization set up to provide humanitarian aid in disaster areas, has been distributing meals to stranded truck drivers. He said that many were anxious to return home, and asking when they would receive a test.
“Its like a horror movie,” he said. “We just want them to go home to their families for Christmas.”
Khalsa Aid has already distributed 1,800 meals since Monday and planned to hand out 3,500 more on Thursday — many to people who would otherwise be celebrating Christmas Eve with their families. “Many of them will not make it tonight,” Mr. Singh said.
In other developments around the world:
Austria allowed ski hills to open on Thursday, but required all skiers age 14 and older to wear respirator masks in public areas and while riding gondolas. Hotels, restaurants and bars remain closed. Huts on the ski hill are not allowed to sell any food or drink, and lifts may run at only half capacity. Skiing is a national pastime in Austria, where children learn to stand on skis as soon as they can walk and professional skiers are celebrated national heroes. But with the lifts open only to Austrians, and operators already facing losses in a year where tourism has dropped more than a third, not all areas will be open. Austria is easing its lockdown for the Christmas holiday starting Thursday, lifting a nightly curfew and allowing up to 10 people from 10 different households to meet. On Saturday, restrictions will tighten again through mid-January. The country of 8.8 million people recorded 2,131 new cases of infection on Thursday.
China will suspend direct flights to and from Britain indefinitely over concerns of the infectious variant spreading there, a Foreign Ministry spokesman said on Thursday. China has barred nonresident travelers from Belgium, Britain, France, India and the Philippines since November, but kept its borders open to Chinese nationals, including students studying in those countries.
A week after he first tested positive to the coronavirus, President Emmanuel Macron of France no longer has symptoms and has stopped isolating himself, according to a statement his office released on Thursday. Throughout his quarantine, Mr. Macron presented typical symptoms of Covid-19 such as fatigue, coughing and aches. For the past week, daily updates on Mr. Macron’s condition were released to the public — by Mr. Macron himself, by his personal doctor or through official statements from the Élysée Palace — a departure from France’s tradition of secrecy around the health of its presidents.
Prime Minister Ana Brnabic of Serbia received the country’s first Covid-19 vaccine on Thursday, Reuters reported, kicking off a mass inoculation drive. Some 4,875 doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine were flown in on Tuesday, making Serbia the first Balkan nation to acquire shots. Ms. Brnabic said the country was also expecting shipments of China’s Sinopharm and Russia’s Sputnik V vaccines. She said President Aleksandar Vucic would most likely get the Sinopharm vaccine. “We agreed that the two us take shots from different producers,” she told reporters.
France is set to begin its vaccination campaign on Sunday, after the French National Authority for Health approved the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. The inoculations will start in several retirement homes and hospital nursing units. The French authorities have ordered about 200 million does in total and have outlined a three-phase vaccination strategy, starting with seniors and at-risk nursing home workers.
Melissa Eddy, Tiffany May, Constant Méheut and Eshe Nelson contributed reporting.