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Port of Dover queues: A one-off or a long-term problem?

Long tailbacks developed over the weekend, but a failed 2020 bid by the port for more UK government funding suggests longer term issues

Queues leading up to the Port of Dover. The possibility of long summer tailbacks has been spoken about for several years since the UK opted to leave the European Union Pic: Tothdst / Shutterstock

[Article updated July 25 at 16:30 to reflect the evolving the situation.]

Queues at the Port of Dover for ferries to France lasted throughout the weekend after chaotic scenes on Friday, in which holidaymakers had to wait for up to six hours to cross to France. 

The Port stated that traffic was flowing through to ferries as normal today (July 25), but this weekend is also expected to be busy.

Read more: Dover traffic backlog now cleared but warnings of future delays

The Port of Dover blamed the weekend's queues on French border police providing “woefully inadequate resources”. 

French authorities refuted this, blaming staff shortages on a technical issue in the Channel Tunnel that prevented agents getting to their posts on time. Eurotunnel has in turn rejected this excuse, saying issues began before the “minor issue”. 

Read more: French authorities say technical issue led to Dover staff shortages

The UK government also attributed the delays to a lack of preparation by the French authorities, while France’s Transport Minister Clément Beaune stated that additional border checks were a result of Brexit.

Read more: French minister’s reaction to Dover: Don’t blame us for Brexit

How long did the queues last in the short term?

P&O Ferries, which operates between Dover and Calais, stated on Saturday (July 23):

“Please be aware that there is heavy traffic at border control.

“If you're booked to travel today please allow at least three to four hours to clear the approach roads and security checks. 

“Rest assured, if you miss your sailing, you'll be on the first available [ferry] once at check-in.”

It stated that traffic on the Calais side is all clear. 

Jack Cousens, head of roads policy for the AA, told Sky News that “Saturday could prove busier still this weekend”. 

The Port of Dover says that “continual high holiday traffic volumes are fully expected”. 

“Passengers need to come prepared with water, food and supplies and to check with their chosen ferry operator for the latest information and advice,” the Port has stated. 

“Passengers are also asked to avoid trying back routes to reach the port as that makes the situation worse, particularly for local residents.”

The queues continued yesterday (Sunday), with cars at a standstill on roads leading into the port, but by this morning Dover announced that the backlog had been "cleared".

Will this be a reoccurring issue?

The delays are not necessarily a surprise. 

The UK government rejected a £33million proposal by the Port of Dover in 2020 to double the number of French passport control booths from five to 10 in anticipation of lengthier checks linked to Brexit. 

Tim Reardon, head of EU Exit at the port, said French controls would get “more intrusive, and therefore slower” after the UK had fully left the EU, the Financial Times reported at the time.  

“That means we need more French kiosks in order to maintain the rate of flow,” he said. 

But the British government turned down the port’s request, which was made as part of a £200m Port Infrastructure Fund set up to manage the consequences of Brexit. Instead, it gave the port £33,000 for unrelated work. 

Mr Bannister, CEO of the Port of Dover, told the BBC in 2020 that the lack of funding would make the transition to Brexit “more challenging”. 

“Being denied the funding for this programme…What that does mean is that we could see increased friction and increased hold ups while we get through the opening period of the transition," Mr Bannister said.

The issue is that French border police now have to stamp Britons' passports and carry out more rigorous passport checks that could involve assessing visas, specific entry dates – UK citizens can now only stay in the EU for 90 in 180 days without a visa, etc. 

Prior to Brexit, these passport checks were more cursory. 

The travel restrictions brought in due to Covid largely eased the UK’s Brexit transition in terms of travel as far fewer people were attempting to cross over to France or other EU countries. 

This summer is really the first time since Brexit came fully into force in January 2021 that there are very few, if any, restrictions preventing people from travelling at a peak holiday time.

It means that the ports and other travel hubs are extremely busy and at the same time passport checks take longer. 

The Connexion asked the Port of Dover on Friday (July 22) how long the queues could go on for but was told that information could not be provided. 

Jean-Marc Puissesseau, head of the Port de Boulogne-Calais on the French side, told the Financial Times that he had been warning the UK for “several months” about the potential for delays on the French side. 

“I’ve been asking for reinforcements from the [UK border force] – we need 50% more people to ensure the smooth functioning of the port,” he said. 

French MP for the right-wing Les Républicains whose whose constituency includes Calais, tweeted that the delays were Brexit-related.

The situation could get worse

The situation could get even worse later in the year when the EU rolls out its new Entry/Exit System (EES), set for implementation from September. 

The EES will verify the details of non-EU citizens entering and exiting the Schengen area, including name and passport details, entry and exit dates, a photograph and fingerprints, and will replace the need for a passport stamp.

It is essentially an electronic passport check.

Mr Reardon, head of EU Exit at the Port of Dover, has been warning about issues this could cause for nearly a year. 

Read more: Dover Port boss warns of safety issues and delays with new EU checks

He said at a UK Lords Committee in November, 2021, that a major issue with EES is that it is not yet possible to do biometric checks on car passengers, such as those who will take the ferry between the UK and France.

“EES is at heart, a new biometric entry and exit control targeted at non-European nationals, so that in addition to carrying a passport and in place of the current process  – where the French passport officer will look at you and look at your passport and check that they match and if they do will let you in or let you out –  there will be an automatic biometric process,” he said.

“However there is no way yet of doing a biometric control on a vehicle, without getting people out of the vehicle.”

“There is no such thing as an e-gate for a car or for a group. There is a mis-match between the concept on which biometric controls as they exist now have operated, and the way traffic moves in our context. 

He said getting passengers out of vehicles while attempting to board a ferry was “fundamentally unsafe”. 

Read more: EU’s new entry and exit systems problematic, say UK travel chiefs

The UK this week announced its own plans for borderless digital passport checks which it is hoping to start trialling in 2024. This could mean similar issues for French tourists travelling into the UK. 

Read more: Five questions on how UK’s new border scheme could impact EU tourists

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