Covid-19 woes, Not New Checks, Weigh on Post-Brexit Passengers
People arrive at St Pancras International railway station, amidst the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, in London, Britain January 1, 2021. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls
Travellers braving trains between London and Paris on the first day after Britain's exit from the EU customs union experienced additional checks but were more worried by the extra rules required for travel in a pandemic-haunted world.
A much reduced Eurostar service is taking passengers between the French and British capitals during the pandemic, with London-bound travellers needing to quarantine on arrival and those heading to Paris requiring a negative Covid-19 test.
Those stepping off the train from London onto the platform at Gare du Nord in Paris found new customs checks awaiting them, with limits, taxes and even bans on bringing in some goods.
British travellers who are not resident in France however can now also enjoy tax rebates on their shopping when leaving Paris.
"In the first days of Brexit, there will be a lot of explaining to do," acknowledged Jean-Roald L'Hermitte, the head of customs for the Paris region.
"We will gradually get travellers used to these services and these controls," he told AFP, emphasising that checks should not slow down flows and will not target every traveller.
He said some 700 new French customs officers had been recruited to deal with Brexit, adding the service had been "innovative" in rising to the challenge, with automated kiosks being set up for British passengers to get their VAT rebates.
As the passengers emerged from the newly-arrived train in Paris, some were called by the customs to stop and say what they were carrying.
"When I arrived, they asked me if I had any goods or food worth up to 300 euros. If so, I had to pay taxes," said Stephanie Bapes, a 35-year-old Frenchwoman who lives in London.
"Like all French people, I bring meat, cheese or wine when I return to London. Meat will now be banned from our luggage and we will have to pay attention to what we're carrying and check on the government website. For the return, I will bring nothing at all. It's ruined," she sighed.
Apart from meat, milk and dairy products will also be barred, with a few exceptions. Flowers, fruit, vegetables and plants will undergo health checks upon entry to the EU.
"I come home once a year, I wasn't supposed to be home for the holidays but there was an emergency. I bought my ticket at the last minute, with a test (for Covid-19) costing 200 pounds (225 euros)," Stephanie Bapes added.
"Plus the ticket which costs a fortune and the customs... Now we're starting to feel Brexit."
Victoria, 24, wearing the obligatory sanitary mask to travel, said she was more concerned about the pandemic regulations than post-Brexit rules.
"Rather, it is the Covid procedures that we are looking at today," she said.
'Not more complicated'
On the other side of the Channel at St Pancras station in London, travellers wandered out into a ghostly station concourse with the usually busy shops still closed.
"It's not more complicated than before Brexit" said Clemence, surrounded by her children.
Mathilde Allemand, 35, a nurse living in London for the last seven years, said that her journey was smooth.
"What has changed is to know what we have to do in advance. I took an hour to check everything as we have Brexit and the pandemic," she said, adding she planned to take an expensive Covid-19 test in order to win an early release from quarantine.
Christophe Verclytte, 29, who was taking the 3:31 pm train to Paris after visiting his sister in London, lamented that Brexit had happened at all but expressed relief that the last-minute deal had been found.
"I think it's a great mistake. But, it's good that a deal has been found, that will allow us to keep a link."