UK in quarantine – what now for rail freight

As of today, the government in London has imposed a quarantine period of two weeks for all visitors entering the UK. What are the implications for freight movements into the British Isles?

Headlines across the UK press have today (8 June) been dominated by the latest measures introduced by the UK government to combat the spread of coronavirus. In what is widely regarded as the most controversial measure yet, a quarantine has been imposed on all visitors and returning UK nationals, requiting them to self-isolate for 14 days. 

Security forces have been given powers to check on the movements of anyone required to stay in isolation, and fines can be imposed on anyone found to be breaking the regulations. The only foreign nationals who are exempt are visitors from the Republic of Ireland, which enjoys a common travel area with the UK. The territories of the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man are also exempt.

No tunnelling under the regulations

There was speculation that the measures would not be implemented, meaning reaction has been held back until today. Clearly, passenger operators are hardest hit, making international travel all but impossible to or from the UK. Airlines, ferry operators and Eurostar have all expressed dismay, in terms ranging from anger to outright rage. 

Getlink, the operator of the Channel Tunnel, including the truck shuttles that ferry goods vehicles to and from the UK, has said that the new measures are “fraught with problems” and they have reacted angrily to the attitude of the UK government. That comes in a personal letter to the UK prime minister Boris Johnson, from the company president, Jacques Gounon, which does not hold back on his dismay. “Limited consultation by the Home Office and departmental intransigence have led to a situation that puts a serious risk on the efficiency of operations at the Channel Tunnel.”

27 screens – none showing summer blockbusters

Describing the Tunnel as a vital link in the Great British supply chain, Gounon says the requirements to comply with the UK Home Office regulations will mean his colleagues will “ spend hours every, day filling in 27 screens for each of up to eight daily crossings for the channel.” 

Jacques Gounon, president of Getlink, has written to UK prime minister Boris Johnson. He wasn’t inviting him for a cordial coffee in Coquilles (Getlink video image)

On the updated UK government website, the current advice makes a clear statement for Eurotunnel train drivers and crew, Eurotunnel Shuttle drivers, freight train drivers, crew and essential cross-border rail freight workers operating through the Channel Tunnel. “You will need to complete the Public Health passenger locator form before you travel to the UK. You will not need to self-isolate for 14 days. If you are Eurotunnel staff, you should show a terminal access pass, or train driving licence,” says the statement. 

British ports all at sea 

Elsewhere, the problems imposed by the new regulations are no less apparent at ports around the coast of the UK. Compliance for sailors is predicated on the international Seafarers Identification Document, and broadly match those for land-lubbing Britons. All port operators however have put in place practices to mitigate the risks of coronavirus. 

In the dark. British ports are coping will with the circumstances imposed upon them, but there is still uncertainty about the future virus recovery plans from government in the UK. (PD Ports)

At PD Ports, which includes the vast Felixstowe complex, the company say comprehensive measures are in place. “We are segregating teams where possible and staggering shifts to minimise interaction”, says a company statement. “The steps we have taken are working well across our business. Our key workers understand the huge task facing us as a nation and continue to work diligently to ensure that the commodities handled by PD Ports, reach their destinations.”

Tunnel recovery planned

Meanwhile, the challenges of disrupted trade have been made apparent in the latest figures from Getlink. Their ‘Le Shuttle Freight’ carried around 90,000 trucks in May 2020, with an average of four train departures per hour. That however represent a decline of 29 per cent, year on year, from around 128,000 trucks this time last year.

Rail freight is a major focus for the company in the future, Getlink told, and they are eager to see trade and volumes recover and improve. Meanwhile, in some contradiction of their own quarantine rules, the UK government recognised the value of the Tunnel to the wellbeing of the country. It recently invoked a Public Service Order, which places demands and guarantees on the Tunnel, to keep essential freight moving. 

As an interim solution, Getlink has offered to handle the administration of the Public Health passenger locator form on behalf of the government. The UK Home Office has not made any positive response as yet.

Author: Simon Walton

Simon Walton is RailFreight's UK correspondent.

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