The government has commissioned a £200,000-a-year contract with a disaster response charity established by the former head of Britain’s armed forces to help drivers stuck in lorry queues in Kent.
The charity RE:ACT, which uses military veterans to distribute humanitarian aid in war zones and following natural disasters, has been enlisted amid concerns over driver welfare.
The year-long contract, which started in November, means that food and water will be supplied to queues of vehicles on approach roads to Dover and the Channel tunnel if drivers are at a standstill for two days.
The summary says the Department for Transport’s welfare plan was needed because of “regular disruptions” to the road network in the area during previous national events which had severely overstretched local responses.
The plan applies to unscheduled waits of longer than two days suggesting that the government anticipates lorry drivers being forced again this year to queue on the M20 for more than 48 hours at a stretch.
The decision to bring in outside experts follows the disruption to cross-Channel deliveries after Britain left the EU in December 2020, when panicked businesses attempted to stockpile goods, and a 17-mile queue of stationary lorries was reportedly visible from space.
Local groups, including HM Coastguard and members of the Kent Voluntary Sector Emergency Group, stepped in after the border was closed for two days, with the taxpayer funding £34,000 to provide basic food, water and sanitation for drivers.
There were further hold-ups in April 2022 when more than 2,000 lorries were stuck in a 20-mile queue due to disruption to P&O ferry services, the Easter holiday demand, and technical issues with the website needed for documentation post-Brexit.
The RE:ACT charity, which won the contract through its trading arm, RE:SILIENT Response, was set up in 2015 by General Sir Nick Parker, former head of the British armed forces.
His team are described as being mostly military veterans who “possess the compassion, grit, resilience and unshakeable determination to save lives and alleviate suffering in the worst situations”, according to their website.
They usually deploy to “major natural disasters and on emergency operations”. This has included emergency water purification training in Sierra Leone following floods, and extensive emergency humanitarian work in Ukraine, such as provision of hot food to vulnerable displaced people in Dnipro.
Nick Smith, the Labour MP for Blaenau Gwent, said: “The government’s incompetence around the border has resulted in them having to bring in companies more used to providing humanitarian support for people in war zones and in the aftermath of natural disasters. That the government has turned to them shows the scale of the chaos unleashed by their failure to deliver a Brexit that works.”
The DfT’s advert for the contract, which lasts until November 2023, was signed by Kent county council and has been funded by the Department for Levelling Up said: “Historically, locally procured food and water supplies were distributed direct from suppliers to those caught on to the road network. After the events of Christmas 2020 where prolonged delays resulted from the border being closed for two days, it was recognised that local response capabilities had been severely overstretched.
“It was agreed with the [DfT] that a new centrally funded procurement and distribution plan was required to respond to events that were triggered by ‘national events’ and where they are going to last for longer than 1-2 days.”
A government spokesperson said: “Driver welfare is our priority and it’s only right we have robust emergency support in place in case of unprecedented issues at the border.
“There are currently no known congestion issues, and we continue to work across government and with our partners, including the French government, to ensure passengers have the smoothest journey possible.”
• This article was amended on 9 January 2023. The DfT clarified after publication that while the contract was commissioned by the department, it was signed by Kent county council and paid for by the Department for Levelling Up.