Travel woes for Britons are set to get even worse as more than 1,000 Passport Office staff began a five-week strike today at the busiest time of year for renewals but delays at Dover have finally eased after three days of chaos.
Members of the Public and Commercial Services union (PCS) at eight sites are walking out in an escalation of the long-running row over jobs, pay, pensions and conditions – and waiting times for travel documents are set to surge as a result.
There has been a scramble for new passports last week ahead of Passport Office workers walking out this morning in Glasgow, Durham, Liverpool, Southport, Peterborough, London, Belfast and Newport in Wales. These offices usually handle 250,000 applications per week in April.
It is feared that emergency passports over the Easter period could be almost impossible – and that normal applications put in today could take up to ten weeks – meaning travellers potentially have to wait until early June for a new passport to arrive.
Andy Anderson, of the consumer advice website passportwaitingtime.co.uk, estimated waits could ‘get close to ten weeks’ – when earlier this year it could be as short as two to three weeks for a first passport.
It came as the horrific queues at Dover are ‘all clear’ today after coachloads of holidaymakers including schoolchildren endured ‘inhumane’ conditions and delays stretching to almost 20 hours.
1,000 passport office staff have started their five-week strike today (Peterborough pictured) with renewals and new applications set to be disrupted
People wait outside HM Passport Office in East London this morning as staff walked out
Vehicles spent hours queuing at border control as they attempted to get on ferries heading to France on Saturday
A view of the check-in lanes at the Port of Dover in Kent this morning after a weekend of backlogs which left passengers stuck in Easter traffic for hours as the Easter holidays begun
Rubbish piles up at Dover after ‘inhumane’ conditions there since Friday
There has said there has been a ‘temporary increase’ in demand for new passports as people panicked about whether they can get their renewals or new travel documents sorted for the summer.
But the Home Office has insisted there are currently no plans to change the 10-week guidance for passports to be processed and sent out, despite the industrial action. It said the Passport Office has dealt with more than 2.7million requests this year, with 99.7 per cent of standard applications processed within ten weeks.
The government website has been creaking under the surging demand and one-week Fast Track applications are limited.
The union said those taking action will be supported by a strike fund. PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka has written to the Government calling for urgent talks in a bid to resolve the dispute.
It comes on the same day Britain’s biggest teaching union will announce whether its members have accepted a pay offer from the Government – something that if rejected could spark strikes at the end of April and start of May.
Mark Serwotka, the general secretary of the PCS union, speaks at a rally in Trafalgar Square on March 15. he has written to the government urging them to sit down for negotiations
PCS leader Serwotka has accused ministers of treating its own employees differently to others in the public sector after negotiations were held with unions representing health workers and teachers.
The union is stepping up strikes, with a nationwide walkout of more than 130,000 civil servants planned for April 28.
The Home Office said the Passport Office has already processed more than 2.7 million applications this year, adding over 99.7% of standard applications are being processed within 10 weeks, with the majority of those delivered to customers well under this timescale.
There are currently no plans to change official guidance which states that it takes up to 10 weeks to get a passport.
Dover has said that the delays have finally ended after extra overnight cross-Channel ferry sailings were laid on to clear the backlog of cars and coaches.
Disruption at the port began on Friday when the port declared a critical incident and said the delays were ‘due to lengthy French border processes and sheer volume’ of vehicles at the start of the Easter getaway.
Each coach was taking up to an hour to clear passport control – but Home Secretary Suella Braverman has rejected suggestions that Brexit could be the cause of delays.
On Sunday night, the Port of Dover said around 40 coaches were awaiting immigration processing with a wait of around four hours expected. At 2.30am on Monday, the port also said the A2 and A20 approach roads were ‘running normally’ and the situation was ‘all clear’.
Worried parents – some of whom had saved up for months to send their children on dream trips to the Continent – told how teenagers had instead been left stranded with nothing to eat all day.
However, Home Secretary Suella Braverman yesterday rejected suggestions that Brexit could be the cause of delays, instead blaming ‘acute’ pressure from it being a ‘busy time of year’.
Some Brexiteers shared articles from 2016 – before Brexit – when there were similar delays at Easter due to a lack of French border staff. Some drivers at Dover over the weekend claimed that as a few as three border posts run by Paris were open.
Others claimed that all the border posts had been open and shared a Financial Times article from 2020 which claimed that Britain had refused to pay France to double the number of border posts at Dover to 20.
Due to Britain now being a ‘third country’ after Brexit, France insists travellers must have their passports stamped with dates when entering and leaving the EU’s Schengen area, which France is a member of.
This is to ensure Britons don’t stay more than 90 days within a 180 day period without a visa, which is required post-Brexit for longer visits.
Border guards have also been ordered to ask British holidaymakers whether they have a return ticket, have enough money for their stay and have booked accommodation.
It means it can take an extra 90 seconds longer to carry out passport checks on Continent-bound vehicles. With coaches of people it can take even longer.
Yesterday travel writer Simon Calder said processing times had increased sharply since the UK left the EU ‘and that would seem to explain the delays’. He says that it is ‘95% to do with Brexit’ and that people who say otherwise ‘is in denial’.
However the Home Secretary branded the criticisms unfair.
‘What I would say is at acute times when there is a lot of pressure crossing the Channel, whether that’s on the tunnel or ferries, then I think that there’s always going to be a back-up and I just urge everybody to be a bit patient while the ferry companies work their way through the backlog,’ Ms Braverman told Sophy Ridge On Sunday on Sky News.
Shadow levelling up secretary Lisa Nandy agreed that ‘a range of factors’ have caused the delays – but said ministers had known ‘for a very long time’ that extra resources would be needed ‘to deal with additional paperwork checks’.
Tory MP for Dover, Natalie Elphicke, said over the weekend: ‘French border control problems once again adding to traffic mayhem just as families are trying to getaway for the Easter holidays’.
Former Conservative MP Ann Widdecombe blamed France last night: ‘Brexit itself is not to blame for anything. It is not just deliberate provocation. It is inefficiency and a failure to proved enough staff, France is in a pickle right now and perhaps the poor things cannot get it right’.
In a third day of major delays at the Kent port, Gillian Charlton, 43, said her son Ned, 13, and his friends arrived in Dover at around 7.30pm on Saturday night – only to find themselves still stuck in the queue the following morning.
‘They were given a KitKat at midnight,’ said the social care worker.
‘Children are feeling unsafe. They are all starving. It’s shambolic.’
The group had set off on Saturday morning from Chorley, Lancashire for a ski trip in Italy’s Valle d’Aosta.
‘My son said there are hundred coaches behind them – and I think it’s mainly school kids,’ she said.
‘I sent him off with food for the day and they had breakfast vouchers to get food in France in the morning.
‘I’m so worried.’
The group finally made it onto a ferry after a wait of more than 19 hours – only to find themselves stranded again once they reached Calais as their coach driver had gone over his permitted hours.
PE teacher Danielle Fox was on board a coach packed with 72 children from a school in Wiltshire bound for Spain for a football and netball tour which had been stuck in the queue for 14 hours.
‘It’s been an absolute disaster,’ she told the Daily Mail from the coach yesterday.
‘The children have been looking forward to this trip since before Covid, for some of them it’s their first trip abroad.
‘But we’re only in Platja d’Aro until Good Friday, so it’s really eating into our time there.’
Coaches wait enter the Port of Dover in Kent after extra sailings were run overnight to try and clear the backlog
Dozens of coaches sit waiting to clear border control at the Port of Dover on Sunday, April 2, as travel chaos continues for a third day
She added: ‘We’re current 12th in the queue to go through border control, but each coach is taking around an hour to process.
‘Thankfully we brought plenty of drinking water, but there’s no facilities for the children here at all.
‘We managed to get pizza delivered… but they’re capping the orders so the children only got a slice and a half each.
‘The girls are having to queue for as much as two hours for the toilets in the port building, there’s no toilet roll or sanitary products.
‘It’s completely inhumane.’
Marc Mitchell-Miles, 47, said his daughter Lily and her friends – who had travelled from Weston-super-Mare – were having a ‘bitterly disappointing’ start to their dream £900 ski trip.
‘They’re tired from the journey up and have had zero sleep, and she feels like she just wants to come home and is quite teary,’ he said.
Many coach parties reported being turned away from the port and directed to motorway services instead, with hundreds of children spending the night trying to sleep on hard floors.
To add insult to injury, some school parties had to cancel their trips altogether due to the delays.
Maggie Gordon-Walker’s son’s school trip to Italy’s Folgarida area had to be abandoned due to health concerns for the tired coach drivers.
‘My son is knackered and deflated,’ the charity director said as he prepared to return to Brighton yesterday.
‘I feel sorry for him and angry that this has happened.’ She said organisers had cited health and safety, saying the need for the driver to have a nine-hour rest break meant the school party would have been travelling for over 48 hours without sleep.
The continuing delays came after the port declared a critical incident last Friday, saying delays were ‘due to lengthy French border processes and sheer volume’.
Schoolchildren sit next to their coach after it was stopped in a holding pen at the Port of Dover on Sunday, April 2
A spokesman for the Port of Dover said ‘additional sailings have assisted in clearing some of the traffic’, but admitted ferry operators DFDS and P&O still had two full lanes of coaches waiting to pass through French border controls yesterday, with a ‘dwell time’ of at least six hours.
It said it had been ‘working round the clock’ with ferry operators and border agencies to try and get coach passengers on their way, with food and drink provided to passengers.
P&O Ferries apologised to customers while last night DFDS insisted that cars and freight were now flowing freely.
It comes as Britain’s biggest education union will announce today whether teachers have voted to continue crippling strikes despite pay offer from the government.
The National Education Union (NEU), which has over 500,000 members, will announce at its annual conference in Harrogate this morning whether they will walkout again on April 27 and May 2.
The union has urged its members to reject the government’s offer of £1,000 one-off cash payment to all teachers, as well as a 4.5 per cent pay rise for teacher and leaders in 2023/24.
The NEU says the offer falls ‘well short’ of what it believes is acceptable and has accused the government of refusing to fully fund it, suggesting the rise would have to come out of existing school budgets.
Dr Mary Bousted, joint secretary of the NEU, leads strikers on a march in central London on March 15. The NEU will reveal today whether teachers will go on strike again at the end of April and beginning of May
It comes as a survey suggested nearly half of teachers feel their workload is unmanageable most or all of the time.
The majority of teachers said increased funding to pay for more staff (88%), a less punitive inspection system (79%) and smaller class sizes (73%) would have a ‘big positive impact’ on their workload in the coming year.
A poll of more than 17,800 National Education Union (NEU) members in England and Wales found that 35% of teachers viewed their workload as unmanageable most of the time and 13% said they felt this all of the time.
It also found that more than a third (37%) of teachers, and around a fifth (21%) of support staff, said they feel stressed at work 80% or more of the time.
An additional 31% of teachers surveyed, and a further quarter (25%) of support staff, said this is the case 60% to 79% of the time.
Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the NEU, said: ‘We have known for a number of years that workload is the number one reason teachers decide to leave the profession, and it remains a major concern for support staff also.
‘It is a key driver of the recruitment and retention crisis, where talented graduates suffer burnout within just a few years of qualifying.
‘Looked at year on year, there is no discernible improvement in the situation. The strength of feeling from our members is just as intense as last year, sometimes more so, and indicates a failure on the part of Government to tackle a problem which a growing list of former education secretaries has admitted exists.
‘We are pleased that (Education Secretary) Gillian Keegan is willing to explore workload solutions with the education unions and hope that it bears fruit with real change for teachers and support staff. This time, Government really must deliver.’
A Department for Education spokesperson said: ‘We recognise how hard teachers work to transform children’s lives up and down the country.
‘We are listening to teachers about the issues that affect them most. That is why, as part of our offer to the unions, we committed to forming a joint taskforce to reduce workload by five hours per week for every teacher.
‘To improve teachers’ access to mental health support we are also investing £760,000 in a scheme that provides one-to-one supervision, and counselling to school leaders, and have launched the Education Staff Wellbeing Charter.’