As his Jaguar E-Pace rolled off the ferry at Newhaven at 3.58am, Bernard Rust breathed a sigh of relief and allowed himself a wry smile.
With just two minutes to spare, he had beaten the 4am deadline after which all new arrivals from France are forced to quarantine at home for two weeks.
The financial adviser and his partner, Sarah Holloway, from East Sussex, were among tens of thousands of Britons who raced through the night – on ferries, trains, chartered planes and even fishing boats – to avoid rules announced at short notice on Thursday evening.
The 11th-hour move to include France on the UK’s quarantine list sparked chaos for 160,000 British holidaymakers in the country. For those who cannot afford to spend 14 days isolating at home, it prompted a mad dash for the exit to be back in Britain before the early morning deadline.
Mr Rust, 60, who had stayed in La Rochelle for a week, said it was fortunate that he was already booked to return on the ferry from Dieppe to Newhaven, which got back just in the nick of time.
He added: ‘We knew it was scheduled to get back at 4am but what if we were delayed by a minute? I called the Government’s Covid hotline and asked them what does being in the UK mean – does it mean being in UK waters? They said it means “when I’m in the UK region”. They didn’t seem to have a satisfactory answer and they didn’t put our minds at ease.’
After calling other ferry firms to try to get an earlier crossing – and finding them fully booked – Mr Rust went ahead with his booking. He said: ‘Normally I try and get a couple of hours’ sleep, but there was no chance. I kept going up to the top deck to see if I could see land and finally I could see Newhaven harbour at 3.30am. I thought, “Blimey, we’re going to make it”.’
A group of musicians also beat the France quarantine rules with just ten minutes to spare after chartering a fishing boat to get them back to the UK. After a performance in Lessay Abbey, Normandy, on Friday night, eight members of the Scotland-based Dunedin Consort arrived at Hayling Island in Hampshire at 3.50am. ‘We looked into ferries, the Eurotunnel, flights, even chartering a private jet — you name it, we tried it, but we couldn’t find any way of doing the concert and getting home before the quarantine curfew,’ said Jo Buckley, the Dunedin Consort’s chief executive.
The Dunedin Consort wrote on Twitter: ‘Au revoir France! As exits from concerts go, this one is quite unique. We’re sailing back to the UK on a fishing boat overnight to beat the quarantine.’
But thousands missed the deadline. Alexis Walmsley, from Basingstoke, Hampshire, missed the last Eurostar train from Paris to London and must now quarantine for the next 14 days with her disabled son after her train from Avignon to Paris was delayed in Lyon. She said her son ‘won’t understand quarantine’ and the family ‘don’t even know where we will sleep tonight’.
Ms Walmsley wrote on Twitter: ‘So near and yet so far. Reorganised my return from France to ensure my disabled son didn’t have to quarantine but our TGV was so delayed we are going to miss the last Eurostar home.’
She added: ‘Made new booking for me and my disabled son (who won’t understand quarantine) from Avignon to Paris for the Eurostar.
‘We’d have made it home but for a massive delay at Lyon. Now I don’t even know where we will sleep tonight.’
At St Pancras Station at 9am yesterday, a dejected IT worker who gave his name as Dmitri, from London, said: ‘I had been in Paris visiting a now ex-girlfriend. I wanted to come back yesterday but I couldn’t get a ticket. My ticket today was double the price.’
However, some people were still making their way to France, despite the new rules. IT worker John Kweku, from London, said: ‘The quarantine is the right thing. I’ll be coming back in a week, and I’ll be quarantining. I work from home so that’s fine.’ Antoine, a finance worker from London, said: ‘I don’t particularly like the idea of having to quarantine but I understand why they are doing it. I am due to be back in ten days, but I might stay for longer. Either way, I can work remotely.’
The quarantine rules also apply to the Netherlands, Monaco, Malta, the Turks and Caicos Islands and Aruba amid concerns about a rising numbers of Covid cases. The captain of a North Sea ferry back from the Netherlands ordered full speed ahead from the Hook of Holland to Harwich, cutting three hours off the 120-mile crossing to arrive back by 3.45am.
Mum Rachel Fortnum-Adams, 47, from Ipswich, who had paid £300 to get her 13-year-old son Joseph and his friends home from a table tennis competition in the Netherlands, said: ‘It was great to see them coming out of the terminal. I am one very relieved mum.’
There were signs of retaliation against the Government’s move last night. Dutch authorities warned against ‘all but essential travel’ to Britain, and France has indicated it may ‘reciprocate’ with similar measures, meaning Britons would need six weeks off just to enjoy two weeks of holiday – including two weeks’ quarantine in France followed by another fortnight in Britain after their trip.
One family made it back to Britain with just hours to spare. Matt, a teacher from Manchester who did not share his second name, took his car on a Channel Tunnel train which was due to arrive back in the UK at 3.55am.
His family had been camping in the Dordogne and had planned to come home on Monday but changed their tickets for an extra £115.
The family drove for 10 hours to Calais to catch the train and spent another £66 to stay at a hotel in the early hours before driving on to Manchester.
‘We literally got on the last available train. We’d been keeping up-to-date with the chaos at Calais so we were fearing the worst,’ the 40-year-old said.
‘Luckily, once we got to Calais we sailed through and actually got back at just gone 3am.’
Three friends returning to London this evening said they will have to quarantine despite testing negative for the virus in the last week.
School worker Lou Le Mener, 23, student Aurelia Crea and IT worker Marine Coupe, 25, all French nationals living together in London, arrived back at St Pancras on Saturday evening after visiting family.
Ms Crea said: ‘We wanted to come back yesterday but it was about 300 euros a ticket and the website was crashing. Then you have a lot of people in the same place, crowded trying to come back. The Eurostar today was very quiet.
‘I feel it’s unfair for us to have to quarantine but we will do it. In Paris we have to wear masks almost everywhere, we already felt trapped there and now we are trapped again.’
One mother was forced to leave two of her children behind with her husband when she fled France on the last Eurostar train.
The woman – who had to return to the UK before quarantine began due to her job – was only able to get tickets for herself and her baby.
She now fears her two daughters – who will return on Monday – may not be out of quarantine when their school goes back.
The move has ruined the holiday plans of an estimated 500,000 Britons in France, and travel bosses have warned of days of chaos.
Eurotunnel tickets for crossings this weekend and into next week were selling out fast last night, along with Eurostar trains out of Paris. Flights with British Airways, Ryanair and EasyJet sold out within minutes of the announcement on Thursday night.
The cost of tickets for the few remaining seats on flights from Nice and Paris jumped ten-fold to £800 yesterday morning. Tickets for the Channel Tunnel sold out in hours as 12,000 people tried to move their bookings forward.
French officials are frustrated that the UK made its decision to quarantine arrivals from the whole of France when many areas – particularly on the west and north coast – have low infection rates.
UK officials said Britain saw 1,012 confirmed cases of coronavirus yesterday and three deaths, bringing the toll to 41,361 people.