The travel stalemate hit Kent’s roads around Dover and Folkestone again over the weekend as British tourists faced the realities of traveling in the EU during a busy period for the first time since the entry into force of Brexit in January 2021.
It was a miserable start to the holiday on the mainland with queues of five to six hours, and travelers were warned that the disruption is expected to continue through the summer.
What is the cause? Could this have been avoided and is there a solution?
What’s to blame?
In short, the surge in post-pandemic travel combined with Brexit passport checks.
The weekend after the English public school summer holidays in July is the busiest weekend for the Port of Dover.
But it was the first time since Brexit that new EU entry restrictions had been tested to the limit.
By this time last year, although lockdown restrictions had been lifted, passenger numbers were a fraction of normal volumes, and the UK government had imposed an ‘orange plus’ restriction on travel from France forcing holidaymakers to self-quarantine on their return to Britain.
What happened over the weekend?
The Port of Dover has seen a fivefold increase in the number of cars year-on-year.
On Friday, it said it handled 11,000 cars, down from 1,200 on the equivalent Friday in 2021.
On Saturday it handled just under 12,000 cars, compared to 2,400 this time last year, and 10,000 cars on Sunday compared to 1,900 on the equivalent Sunday in 2021.
Was Dover ready?
Yes. Dover chief executive Doug Bannister told LBC it was “absolutely true” that Brexit was to blame for the extreme delays caused by a new requirement to stamp UK passports.
The port had been preparing for months for the surge in travellers, but said it had been disappointed by unexpected staff shortages at the French borders.
In anticipation of the peak weekend, Dover installed three additional passport control booths in June. He also converted a former French police checkpoint for cargo control to avoid truck queues.
He also had a yard system in place that prioritized cars over trucks for that particular holiday weekend.
On Friday morning, only six of the nine car passport counters were operational. The French said there was a technical problem in the tunnel, which delayed the arrival of their personnel in Britain.
By lunchtime on Friday the full complement of French staff were on hand, but by then the queue had gotten ‘out of control’ and Dover had a huge task to make up for lost time .
Waiting times were back to normal on Monday and the special traffic arrangements in place at Dover ended at 8.25am.
But Liz Truss said the French were to blame
The foreign secretary and Tory leadership candidate who is vying to be Britain’s next prime minister has told France it must end the ‘avoidable and unacceptable’ situation at the border.
Is Brexit to blame?
To a large extent, yes.
To criticize the French, as Truss did, was to deny the consequences of the hard Brexit for which the British Conservative government fought and won.
The port handled almost 142,000 passengers over the weekend and each of those passports had to be manually stamped due to Brexit, which cut the average time each passenger had to pass through passport control from 48 to 90 seconds.
Writing in the French-language English-language newspaper, The Local, veteran commentator John Lichfield said “strictly speaking” that the stalemate was not the fault of Brexit but “the fault of successive British governments who failed to prepare Brexit and failed to educate the British public about what Brexit means”.
Was the passport control bottleneck avoidable?
Yes. The government has rejected the Port of Dover’s request for a £33m tranche of a Brexit infrastructure fund in 2020 to, among other things, double French passport control capacity. He only got £33,000 instead.
Will passport checks be automated in the future?
Yes. And there are plans in place for an electronic visa waiver system, called the European Travel Information and Authorization System (ETIAS), similar to the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) in the United States. .
It should be fully operational next May.
A second automated system called Entry/Exit System (EES) is being built in the EU to replace the current manual stamping method.
It will record the person’s name, type of travel documents and biometric data (fingerprints and captured facial images).
It was supposed to be operational this fall but could be pushed back to next year.
Automation could be another nightmare for Dover and Eurotunnel
While ETIAS and EES can operate at airports, where barriers are in place for biometrics, this is a headache for Dover and Eurotunnel.
Biometric checks could require passengers to get out of their cars to pass an airport-style facial recognition barrier or fingerprint checks.
Eurotunnel and the Port of Dover warned that this was both a danger to drivers and passengers, but also that there was no room for the additional biometric cabins.
Are there solutions?
The transport industry has been warning since 2017 that a hard Brexit would lead to traffic jams on Kent’s roads.
The only way to remove Brexit barriers completely is to join the single market, and that is not an option under a Conservative or Labor government.
John Keefe, public affairs manager at Getlink, the owner of Eurotunnel, told the BBC that one of the problems was that all traffic descended on one motorway, the M2, but significant improvements could be made if the A2, the old Dover road, has been changed to a dual carriageway to the port.
He also said more transport could go through the rail network.