A further 800 military personnel are being sent to Kent to help thousands of lorry drivers forced to spend Christmas in their cabs, parked up on roads and in lorry parks around the south coast ports.

The government is trying to rapidly increase testing to clear the backlog after failing to embark huge numbers of stranded drivers since the French authorities reopened the border on Wednesday morning. About 4,000 lorries are still waiting to cross the Channel after the French closed their border with the UK.

Traffic was moving smoothly through the port on Friday, with French firefighters also helping the military test drivers for coronavirus. The Port of Dover said 1,445 HGVs and 738 cars had left on Thursday and they expected roughly the same number to depart on Friday, meaning thousands are likely to be waiting into the weekend.

More than 700 hauliers have been cleared for departure since France reopened its border on Wednesday – and a chorus of beeping horns sounded at Dover on Christmas Eve as those at the front of the queue celebrated finally being able to leave.

The Port of Dover said ferries had no set timetable for departures, but would look to leave with the maximum number vehicle numbers on board.

Some have already spent nearly a week stranded due to the diplomatic impasse that emerged when French authorities closed the border on Sunday in an attempt to stop the spread of the new coronavirus variant discovered in the UK.

They agreed to relax the measure from Wednesday morning but insisted that anyone wishing to cross the Channel produce a negative test result received within the previous 72 hours, creating a further logistical headache.

UK government ministers had promised to get the vast queues moving the day the border reopened. But they were able to provide only a limited testing capacity, meaning fewer than 100 hauliers were able to leave via Dover on Wednesday out of the 6,000 officials estimated were waiting.

The queues have formed around the port town, at a lorry park at nearby Manston airfield and on the M20.

Southeastern Railway and Network Rail have arranged for food to be delivered to lorry drivers stuck in Operation Brock on the motorway. Seven trains carrying crates of food for the hauliers have left London in the past 48 hours, with the Salvation Army distributing the items.

The army has now deployed about 1,100 soldiers to help with the efforts and more than 300 of them will be involved in testing and lorry marshalling to clear the backlog.

The government said catering vans would provide hot food and drinks to stranded hauliers at Manston airfield, with Kent council and volunteer groups providing refreshments to those stuck on the M20.

There are more than 250 toilets at Manston, with a further 32 portable toilets added to existing facilities already along the M20.

Traffic was moving more quickly at the Eurotunnel, with around 2,000 lorries expected to depart on Thursday.

Duncan Buchanan, a policy director at the Road Haulage Association, said: “The most reassuring thing is that food is getting through at Manston, and I have to say a big thank you to everyone who volunteered to help drivers stick it out in cold conditions in the days leading up to Christmas.”

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