Inside BU Channel 

How a new BU head experienced a Christmas crisis 

By Filip Hermann, Vice President & Head of BU Channel.

BU Channel is a busy place. There is nothing we haven’t seen, from exhausted migrants hiding in trailers to armed robbers on the run. If not daily then at least on a weekly basis, we experience something unusual. However, this Christmas was extraordinary by all standards. 

Leading up to Christmas, we were experiencing freight volumes like never before. Christmas is always busy because of the seasonal peak. But this year Brexit was looming only a few days after Christmas leading to massive stockpiling, extensive media coverage and long queuein Dover as well as in France. In fact, we carried 35% more trailers on the Dover routes and 50% more trailers on Dieppe-Newhaven route compared to December 2019. 

December was also an unusual month in other terms. Corona restrictions in the UK was tightened on December 2 because of a mutant strain of COVID-19 found in Kent, where Dover is located. As the new mutant strain continued to spread, we decided to close the Whitfield office completely (again) and strengthen health precautions. 

Despite these unusual and concerning circumstances, a tired and exhausted organisation and the management team prepared for a well-deserved Christmas day – the only day of the year where the ports are closed, and we don’t operate 24 hours a day. But then the Christmas crisis began. 

 

December 20 

The day started like the previous day with volumes building up in the ports already early in the morning. Truck drivers in Dover, anxious to get back to the Continent to spend Christmas with their families and their colleagues on the French side, were waiting to deliver the last Christmas food and other goods to the warehouses in the UK. 

But suddenly everything changes. The French government announces a 48-hour ban on entry to France from the UK for passengers as well as freight drivers. The surprising and disrupting announcement catches everyone by surprise and causes a rush to the Port of Dover. Everybody wants to get on the last vessels out of the UKReliable information is difficult to obtain because neither local nor national authorities know exactly what is going on. The last vessel for Dunkerque and Calais disembarks shortly before midnight but because of a local interpretation of the ban we unfortunately have to disembark all our customers in Newhaven again before everything turns quiet. 

 

December 21 

Traffic has been building up overnight. More trucks have arrived at the entrance to the ports and the queues are now many kilometres long. We can still ship trucks from France to the UK, but hauliers are concerned about stranding their trucks in UK because of the travel restrictions. Nobody knows how long the ban will last. We are also able to send unaccompanied trailers to France, but the queues outside the ports make it difficult for our customers to drop the trailers off and to pick them up. Politicians are working around the clock to solve this diplomatic and potentially humanitarian crisis. 

 

December 22 

Finally some good news. The band on freight drivers will be lifted at midnight if proof of a negative COVID-19 test can be presented. But how do you test thousands of drivers parked on the roads all over Kent? Manston airport turns out to be the UK governments solution. Testers from all over the country arrives to the area and prepare themselves for a difficult job over the next couple of days. We were told testing would start the next day at 6am. We prepare for a busy Christmas, but we have enough time and capacity to clear everything before the port closes on Christmas day. Or so we thought. 

 

December 23 

It’s 6am but nothing happens. No truck drivers with negative tests show up at Port of Dover. In fact, the roads are so gridlocked that it’s impossible to get anywhere near the port. The day shift has to take the train to work and walk the last couple of miles. The office manager has to get police escort only to return home again. Supplies cannot get to the port either raising concerns about us having enough food onboard. Tension starts rising at the entrance. Civil disobedience breaks out and the police has to remove trucks from the roads to make access for the few drivers that have already been tested. 

 
Picture of the entrance to port of Dover on December 23 

But progress is slow. More and more trucks try to make it to Manston airport to get tested, but that only gridlocks the roads even more. At the same time, we are not able to disembark the vessels from France in Dover anymore because the exit from the port is blocked by angry and tired truck drivers who thought they were first in line but now have to go back in the queue to get tested. Only with the help of our suppliers do we manage to get our supply chain for food for the vessels up and running again. This time on the French side. 


Aerial photo of trailers waiting to get tested at Manston airport 

By the end of the day, when we tally the numbers of trailers we have sent to France, we can’t count to more than 150. A disaster for us and for the thousands of truck drivers stuck in their vehicles on the third day. 

 

December 24 

Traffic starts to flow a bit better but it’s still slow and the ships are not full. The majority of the approx. 10.000 trucks are still waiting to go home and have by now realized that they will be spending Christmas at a deserted airport in Kent. 

The management team discusses the possibility of operating on Christmas day due to this extraordinary event. It would be the first time in history and something that would require many different stakeholders to collaborate and rely on each other. Political pressure increases from all sides. Our own CEO even receives a personal request from Audina Valean, the European Commissioner for Transport and I have several calls with the UK government. There is a lot of opposite information flowing around on social media from various politicians but around noon we finally get the official confirmation from the Department of Transport that all the relevant authorities will remain operational on Christmas day. 

With short notice, the BU Channel leadership team initiates an intense campaign to find approx. 400 volunteers among our already tired and exhausted colleagues to carry out this extraordinary operation on Christmas day. At a time where the political uncertainty makes their situation just as unpredictable and exposed as the drivers’. We quickly find enough hard-working colleagues who are ready to sacrifice their own Christmas for the wellbeing of our customers. It’s not longer a question of Christmas or not – it’s a humanitarian crisis. 

 

December 25 

Crew and onshore colleagues meet in to work on Christmas morning and the first sailing departs full at 8am. Drivers are extremely happy for the chance to finally go home and show their appreciation to our colleagues in the check-in booths and on board the vessels. It’s great to see the smiles on their faces. This day will be remembered for a long time on BU Channel. 

 

December 26 

Normal operations resume but the queues are still long. At the end of the day, we are finally able to clear most of the backlog from Manston and the roads in Kent. Everybody is relieved and the praises start coming in from all sides. We get official emails from Ports and other authorities and even a personal DFDS greeting and thank you video from the UK minister of Transport. 

 

What did I learn? 

First, I learned that BU Channel is an amazing organization. From the leadership team that worked tirelessly through Christmas to the staff in the check-in booths and the crew onboard that stood up to the challenge when asked to help the truck drivers home for Christmas and solve the pending humanitarian crisis. Second, I learned that you should be careful about using the word “usually” in the same sentence as BU Channel. I was told Christmas was the quietest time of the year. But things are never as they used to be when you transport more than a million trucks and five times that number of passengers per year. Finally, I learned how important the work that we do in BU Channel is to the UK. It was amazing to see that when all external disasters hit us simultaneously on the one day we were not supposed to operate, everything grinded to a hold. Prime ministers got on their phones with presidents to get the wheels turning again. Civil disobedience breaks out and the military is deployed. I can’t wait to see what BU Channel has in store for me in 2021 and beyond. Tomorrow is the first day post-Brexit and the day we start our new route to Ireland 

December 31, 2020