British army helps clear backlog of 4,000 virus-stranded truck drivers at border
LONDON - Around 1,000 British soldiers spent Christmas Day clearing a huge backlog of truck drivers in the south east of England after France briefly closed its border with the UK, then called for coronavirus testing fearing a new, apparently contagious, virus variant.
Even as 4,000 international truckers spent another day in their taxis, there was some progress on Friday. Traffic around the port of Dover in the English Channel moved in an orderly fashion towards the additional ferries that were used for the short crossing to Calais in northern France.
The military personnel managed traffic and helped a mass test program for the drivers who are required to test negative to enter France. French firefighters have also been drafted to help the military test drivers for coronavirus.
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UK Department of Transportation officials said all but three of the 2,367 coronavirus tests taken so far were negative.
France closed its border to the UK for 48 hours last Sunday after UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson said a 70 percent more transmissible variant of the virus is driving the rapid spread of infections in and around London. As a result, lockdown restrictions have been tightened and family holidays have been canceled in the capital and many other parts of England.
Most of the testing will be conducted at a disused airfield at Manston Airport, 20 miles from Dover. Free food and drink was sent to the stranded truck drivers and more than 250 portable toilets were set up in Manston and 32 more were placed along the blocked M20 motorway.
"The most comforting thing is that the food is coming through in Manston and I have to thank everyone who volunteered to help the drivers get through it in the cold days leading up to Christmas," said Duncan Buchanan of Great Britain Road Association.
The mood among the stranded riders appeared to be largely optimistic, especially when compared to their anger earlier this week over the situation and lack of facilities.
"I know that many drivers found it difficult to sit in their taxis at this precious time of year, but I assure them that we will do our best to get them home," said UK Transport Secretary Grant Shapps.
The virus has been blamed for over 1.7 million confirmed deaths worldwide, including nearly 70,000 in the UK, the second highest death toll in Europe after Italy.
On Saturday, Britain extended stricter lockdown restrictions to more areas as authorities attempt to curb the spread of the new variant. In the past two days, the UK has had the two highest daily infection rates at just under 40,000. That is fueling fears that the country's beloved national health service will soon face acute capacity problems in its hospitals and thousands more people will die from the virus.
In a video message to the nation, Johnson said Christmas was "not about gifts, turkey or brandy butter," but about hope in the form of coronavirus vaccine shots and the development of other vaccines.
"We know that there will be people next Christmas, people we love, who will live next Christmas precisely because we made the sacrifice and did not celebrate this Christmas as usual," said the Prime Minister.
Johnson said Thursday that more than 800,000 people in the UK received the first dose of the vaccine, which was developed by American pharmaceutical company Pfizer and German biotechnology company BioNTech. The UK was the first country in the world to approve the vaccine and began vaccinating health workers and those over 80 on December 8.
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