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Poland's border crossings become bottlenecks in wake of coronavirus closures

WARSAW (Reuters) - Poland’s border crossings have turned into bottlenecks after the government closed them to stem the spread of coronavirus, local media reports said, with lines in some places reaching almost 50 km (31 miles) and wait times surpassing a dozen hours.

Thousands rushed to cross Poland’s frontiers with Ukraine, Germany, Lithuania, the Czech Republic and Slovakia over the weekend after Poland on Friday announced it would close borders to foreigners and quarantine those returning to the country.

“Yesterday 8,500 people left Poland, mainly citizens of Ukraine who have been leaving Poland in large numbers. Most of them worked in Poland or other European countries and now they come back home in fear of the epidemic threat,” Elzbieta Pikor of the Polish Border Guard told private news broadcaster TVN.

A union representing Polish truck drivers expressed anger with the Polish government for not making conditions easier for truck drivers. Freight is exempted from the new measures.

“Everyone is cooped up on one lane - so we have what we have. One massive mess,” said Tadeusz Kucharski, the head of the Road Transport section of Poland’s Solidarnosc union.

“It wasn’t discussed (with the government) but it could’ve been creates additional stress and additional danger of passing on the illness.”

Poland’s border closure comes as many European countries weigh whether or not to shut borders. At least eight EU states have already taken matters into their own hands, unilaterally shutting out foreign nationals or partially closing their borders to one or more neighbouring country.

While the European Union announced this week it was considering closing its external borders to non-EU citizens, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen expressed concern over the internal border closures.

“We need to keep goods flowing across Europe without obstacles,” she said. “Thousands of bus and truck drivers are stranded at internal borders on parking lots, creating more health risks and disrupting our supply chains.”

Border authorities also told TVN the controls, including taking drivers’ body temperatures, were not designed to take long.

But Kucharski said truck drivers shouldn’t be subjected to the same controls as regular people, dragging out the process. “For trucks there should be a separate corridor. And then there would be different procedures and it would all move quickly,” he told Reuters.

Reporting by Joanna Plucinska and private broadcaster TVN, Editing by Justyna Pawlak, Editing by William Maclean