The chief executive of the Port of Dover has described being “let down” by poor resourcing at the French border as “immensely frustrating”, as travellers faced lengthy queues at the beginning of their summer getaway.
Doug Bannister stopped short of guaranteeing the backlog would clear in the coming days, but pledged that officials are doing all they can to address issues.
A “critical incident” has been declared by the Kent port due to six-hour queues, with tourists urged to consider staying away.
One lorry driver told the PA news agency he had been queuing in his HGV in Dover since 6pm on Thursday, and was still waiting to cross the Channel after 10am on Friday morning.
“I’ve been in something like this before, but this is the worst,” he said.
The Port of Dover attacked French authorities for “woefully inadequate” border control staffing, and local MP Natalie Elphicke claimed French border officers “didn’t turn up for work”.
The Port said resources at the French border increased on Friday morning and traffic was slowly beginning to move, “but it will take some time to clear the backlog”.
Mr Bannister said the port had shared “granular detail” on an “hour-by-hour basis” about the amount of traffic it was expecting, in a bid to avoid such disruption.
Apologising for the situation on Friday – one of the busiest periods for foreign travel from the UK as most schools in England and Wales break up for summer – he said they had been “let down” by French authorities.
He told BBC News: “I am so sorry that the travellers we have going to the port today are being impacted.
“To be let down in the way that we have with inadequate resources and slow processes through the border is just immensely frustrating.
“We’ve shared in granular detail, on an hour-by-hour basis, the amount of traffic we were anticipating, so it was completely known what we needed to have in place at the French border.”
He said Saturday is also likely to be busy, adding it is “just the start of a very busy summer for us”.
Asked whether he can reassure travellers planning a trip over the coming days that the backlog will ease, he said: “I really wish I could – we’re putting all the attention we possibly can do on ensuring there will be enough resources in place to manage this very busy first weekend of the summer.”
In a statement on Friday afternoon, the port said it was urging the UK Government to “continue working with French counterparts” to “adequately resource the border” throughout the summer to “keep our community clear, to get families on their holidays and to keep essential trade moving”.
Passengers embarking on cross-Channel sailings from Dover must pass through French border checks before they can board a ferry.
The port said in a statement that it had increased the number of border control booths by 50%.
It went on: “Regrettably, the PAF (police aux frontieres) 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.”
Ms Elphicke said there had been “weeks of preparation” for this week by the port, the Department for Transport and Kent Resilience Forum, and “much work with French counterparts too”.
She said: “Despite all this, French border officers didn’t turn up for work at the passport controls as needed. This has caused massive delays.”
Delays at Dover are causing tourist and freight traffic to be stuck on gridlocked roads in the area.
One Twitter user wrote shortly before 7am that there was “total gridlock”, while another said they had been “waiting five hours and still not in the port”, adding: “Sat in lanes waiting to get to border control. Zero movement.”
A serious crash between a van and a lorry also led to a closure on the M20 in Kent.
National Highways South-East said delays between junction 11 (Westenhanger/Hythe) and junction 12 were “severe”.
Ferry operator P&O Ferries told passengers to allow at least five hours to clear the approach roads and security checks.
Passengers have been advised to take additional water and snacks, ensure they have plenty of fuel in the tank, and urged not to try back routes to reach the port due to concerns about worsening the congestion situation, particularly for local residents.
Nick Thomas-Symonds MP, Labour’s shadow international trade secretary, said: “Yet again on this government’s watch we are seeing our vital travel and trade links grind to a halt.
“This is what happens when you have a government with no plan and out of ideas about how to fix the country’s problems. The Conservatives are holding the country back and Britain desperately needs a fresh start.”
The AA said its latest data showed other ports, such as Portsmouth and Newhaven ferry ports, were running reasonably smoothly.
The RAC said an estimated 18.8 million leisure trips are planned in the UK between Friday and Monday.
That is the most since the company began tracking summer getaway numbers in 2014.
Transport analytics company Inrix predicted the M25 – London’s orbital motorway – will see some of the worst jams due to the summer getaway, singling out the stretches between Bromley and the Dartford Crossing; Maple Cross and the M3; and the M23 to the M40.
The A303 near Stonehenge in Wiltshire, the M4 between Cardiff and Newport in South Wales, and the M5 south of Bristol are likely to see queuing traffic.
However, fuel price protests in south-west England did not cause disruption to drivers.
At around midday on Friday, Avon and Somerset Police said: “The protest convoy has exited the M5 southbound at J24 (Bridgwater). There is now no protest activity on motorways within Avon & Somerset.
“There are some small delays in both directions on the M5 due to volume of traffic. A protest at the Shell garage in Bridgwater continues.”
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