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France Allows In Trucks From England But Drivers Must Take COVID-19 Test

NOEL KING, HOST:

France is reopening its border with the U.K. after closing it earlier this week. French authorities are worried about this new strain of COVID that is spreading in England and is highly contagious. But these two countries do a lot of trading, so thousands of truck drivers got stuck at British and French ports, some unable to return to France. Some couldn't get back into Britain.

NPR's Eleanor Beardsley is following the situation now from Paris. Hi, Eleanor.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Hi, Noel.

KING: OK. So at this point, is France saying if you want to cross the English Channel, go ahead and do it?

BEARDSLEY: Yes, they are. So the border opened as of this morning. We're seeing things move. This is protocols for urgent travel. So it's truckers, accompanying freight and some passengers. Now, you have to have had a COVID test within 72 hours of making the crossing, a special kind of test for the new strain known as a lateral flow test, I've read. The results come back in 30 minutes. But, you know, it's pretty hard to get when you're stuck in your truck, you know, on the highway...

KING: Yeah.

BEARDSLEY: ...Or on the port. We have seen dramatic scenes of the M20 highway in southern England in Kent, miles of trucks and, you know, thousands of trucks parked on an airport runway. And it even has a name. It's called Operation Stack. So even if the - you know, things are starting to move, it's going to take a couple days for this logjam to clear.

KING: OK. This sounds chaotic. You were at the French port of Calais to get a look at what was going on on the French side of the channel. What did you see there?

BEARDSLEY: Yeah. It was already pretty chaotic. You know, for a couple months, British importers have been frantically trying to get goods through to the U.K. before Britain leaves the European Union's single market and customs union because that could mean more taxes and tariffs, so they're pushing to get stuff through. At the same time, there have been really no passengers because of COVID. And so there are few trains, few ferries, and that's making it even more difficult.

So I spoke to one British trucker who was waiting in a long line - six hours to go, he said - named Leo Warren. Here's what he told me.

LEO WARREN: Been driving a truck for 30 years, and it's more crazy now than it has ever been.

BEARDSLEY: So he said, you know, he does not think things are going to get better. He was very pessimistic. And, you know, that was before this latest saga with the fast-spreading strain of the coronavirus.

KING: OK. And Europe, obviously is a continent. So I'm curious, France may have agreed to let in British truckers as long as they have a negative COVID test. But then - can they then drive on to other countries in Europe?

BEARDSLEY: You know what? This is - it's so fast-moving that we haven't even talked about the Spanish or the German truckers. But if they've got a negative test and they're part of the EU, most likely, yes.

KING: Now, this is all happening as the U.K. and the EU are trying to agree on a trade deal that'll take effect after Britain leaves the EU. Has there been any progress there?

BEARDSLEY: They are deep in negotiations as we speak. But, you know, it's really coming down to the wire. And this morning, a French official went on the radio. This is European Affairs Minister Clement Beaune.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CLEMENT BEAUNE: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: So basically, he said, we're going to have a deal by the end of the year. But he says, you know - he says, it's clear that Britain is more dependent on the EU than vice versa. You know, Britain sends 50% of its exports to the EU and gets 40% of its perishable food from the EU. You know, some of the British papers we've seen have been accusing France of taking revenge on them for Brexit.

But Clement Beaune, he made it clear. He said, you know, even if I don't agree with Brexit, it was the choice of the British people, a democratic nation. He said, but this is clear what happens when you close borders. You have chaos and shortages. Two major British supermarket chains have been warning of shortages. And Clement Beaune said, you know, this is a preview of what could happen if we do not come to an agreement on a trade deal by the end of the year. This is a scary preview.

KING: NPR's Eleanor Beardsley in Paris.

Thanks, Eleanor.

BEARDSLEY: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.