Holidaymakers have been warned chaos that triggered six-hour queues at Dover could spill into the weekend, after the port declared a “critical incident” that it blamed on “woefully inadequate” French border control staffing.
The Kent port apologised to travellers facing long waits to cross the Channel on an extremely busy day for travel across the UK, as schools across England and Wales break up for the holidays.
The AA warned of a “bumper-to-bumper summer” on the roads, while train strikes and surging demand at Britain’s strained airports are also expected to add to holidaymakers’ headaches.
Chaotic scenes around Dover took centre stage on Friday, as the summer getaway began in earnest.
The Port of Dover chief executive Doug Bannister declared a critical incident, telling the BBC that the port had been “badly let down” by French border controls that were “insufficiently resourced” despite advance warning of high traffic volumes.
French police blamed an “unexpected technical incident” in the Channel tunnel that delayed the morning arrival of border control officers in Dover by more than an hour. The tunnel operator, Getlink, said a signal cable was repaired at 7.30am but this was not to blame, pointing out that the “critical incident” at Dover was declared several hours earlier.
As long tailbacks developed on the roads – causing gridlock in the port town itself – Bannister advised passengers to come prepared with water, snacks and supplies, and to check with their ferry operator for updates.
He forecast that the problems could continue into Saturday and urged the British government to work with Paris to clear the backlog. The minister for Europe, Graham Stuart, said discussions were already taking place, blaming “the French authorities”.
Dover is directly affected by any French staffing shortages because of “juxtaposed controls”, where travellers clear French entry requirements at the port before crossing the Channel.
P&O Ferries, one of the main passenger operators from Dover, told customers to allow at least six hours to clear security checks, while rival DFDS, which runs up to 30 sailings a day between Dover and Calais, advised four hours to check in and clear border controls.
The Port of Dover said: “We know that resource is finite, but the popularity of Dover is not a surprise. Regrettably, the Police Aux Frontières (PAF) resource has been insufficient and has fallen far short of what is required to ensure a smooth first weekend of the peak summer getaway period.”
One passenger, who had been due to sail from Dover on Friday, decided at the last minute to spend £400 on alternative travel arrangements to dodge the port queues. John Till, a railway manager from west Dorset, was worried about being stuck in a tailback for hours with his 87-year-old mother, Edna Johnson, on the way to visit friends in Germany.
“At half-four this morning I made the snap decision to rebook travel with Brittany Ferries and travel from the Port of Poole, which is a lot more expensive,” Till said. There was “no way I was going to let my mum down”, he added.
Kent residents were warned earlier in the week that the county’s roads were getting busier amid the start of the summer getaway. The Kent Resilience Forum, a partnership of agencies and organisations, told locals they needed to be prepared for journeys to take longer than normal.
Residents and businesses have already been snarled up in traffic chaos on several occasions this year, as tourist travel has rebounded after the pandemic, while cross-Channel freight volumes have increased.
Dover was hit by particularly long queues ahead of the Easter school holidays, when parts of the coastbound M20 motorway were turned into a lorry park for HGVs waiting to reach France.
The disruption was caused by a shortage of ferries, following P&O Ferries’ mass sacking of crew members, and poor weather conditions, combined with the temporary outage of a key post-Brexit customs IT system.
The port has previously said the post-Brexit trading regime has prompted longer processing times at the border, including time-consuming passport and paperwork checks.
While travel chaos hit the cross-Channel ferry route on Friday, the rush to get away for summer is also expected to cause delays for people travelling by road, rail and air.
The AA warned motorists to beware of a “bumper-to-bumper summer” beginning this weekend, caused by a combination of school holidays and people taking trips that they put off last week due to the heatwave.
At the airports, a lack of workers has led to Heathrow limiting the number of flights, while airlines have also had to cancel thousands of flights due to a shortage of cabin crew.
While some air passengers have reported long queues, airports have yet to suffer a repeat of nightmarish scenes suffered by travellers during the May half-term.
However, Heathrow is warning passengers to arrive up to three hours early, even for short-haul flights, while Gatwick, which has hired 400 extra security staff to cope with the crowds, said it expects Sunday to be its busiest day of the year so far.
Concern about strike action has eased, after hundreds of British Airways staff voted to accept a new pay offer from the company, while Heathrow refuelling staff suspended their own industrial action.
But rail routes that are just recovering from widespread disruption caused by the heatwave now face further strikes on 27 and 30 July after the collapse of talks on Friday night. LNER, which runs on the east coast mainline, warned passengers to travel only if necessary on those days, while 11 other operators, including South Western, Northern, Merseyrail and ScotRail have published strike day timetables. There will also be strikes on the Greater Anglia and Stansted Express services from Saturday 23 July.