France announced a temporary travel ban on Sunday evening and escorted cargo, a potential disaster for UK exporters who rely on trade with Europe. The border closure exacerbated delays before Christmas as trucks were backed up from the port of Dover in south east England, a key border crossing for freight forwarders.
Worse still, the move has raised concerns that European exporters would be reluctant to send goods to the UK for fear of not being able to return. The timing of the restrictions, a few days before Christmas and the end of the Brexit transition period, raised concerns about food and drug shortages in the UK at a critical time.
In the UK, Kent Police closed sections of the English M20 motorway to avoid stalling around the Eurotunnel. Operation Stack – a contingency plan that allows a portion of the highway to be allocated to parked trucks – has been established.
Johnson is expected to hold a press conference to brief the nation on both the new variant of the virus and the current stress on supply chains.
France said it was working to put in place a pan-European health protocol that would allow cargo to get back on track.
“In the next few hours we will have a solid health protocol at European level so that UK flows can resume,” tweeted Secretary of State for Transport, Jean-Baptiste Djebbari, on Monday. “Our priority is to protect our nationals and our citizens,” he added.
Road transport industry officials called on the UK government to carry out rapid tests for truck drivers to restore the French authorities’ confidence that they are free from Covid.
“Right now there will be concerns about a backup if it lasts longer than 48 hours, as it will eventually come to a position where the delays on the exit journey will be significant,” said Alex Veitch, General Policy Manager at Logistics UK BBC Radio 4.
UK supermarkets said their warehouses are currently well stocked. Sainsbury’s warned that if the situation is not resolved quickly, there could be a shortage of perishable goods in the coming days. A spokesman for Sainsbury’s told PA Media: “All the products for the UK Christmas dinner are already in the country and we have a lot of them. If nothing changes, we will see gaps in lettuce and some lettuce in the coming days. Leaves, cauliflower, Broccoli and citrus fruits – all imported from the continent at this time of year. “
As of Monday, dozen of countries in Europe, the Middle East and America had announced travel bans for the UK. Others, like Greece and Spain, have put restrictions on travelers arriving from the UK having to undergo coronavirus testing or quarantine.
In South America, Argentina, Chile and Colombia have suspended direct flights to and from the UK, and El Salvador has banned entry from the UK.
Hong Kong was the first place in Asia to restrict British travelers on Monday. As of Tuesday, all passenger flights from the UK have been suspended and all passengers who have stayed in the UK for more than two hours in the past 14 days will be banned from arriving in the city.
In the Middle East, flights from the UK were banned in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Israel.
Across Europe, countries have closed their borders to travelers from the UK, including the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Italy, France, Sweden, Luxembourg, the Republic of Ireland, Estonia and the Czech Republic.
On Monday, Anthony Fauci told CNN that he would advise against additional travel restrictions to the UK if the matter comes up in a task force meeting scheduled for later that day. The US “must undoubtedly keep an eye on it,” said Fauci, but warned that “we don’t want to overreact”.
The emergency meeting of British government officials on Monday is expected to focus on international restrictions and “especially the steady flow of goods to and from the UK,” the prime minister’s spokesman told CNN. “More meetings will be held tonight and tomorrow morning to make sure there are solid plans,” added the spokesman.
UK Transport Secretary Grant Shapps tried to allay fears of food disruption. The Dover to Calais Eurotunnel accounts for only about 20% of the goods that enter and leave the country.
“It’s not the mainstay, most goods come in and out in unaccompanied containers and these will keep flowing,” he said.
The travel restrictions followed the British government’s announcement on Saturday that the new coronavirus variant appears to be spreading faster.
In a hastily convened press conference on Saturday, Johnson said the new variant is “up to 70% more transferable” and is responsible for a significant increase in cases in London and the south-east of England. These areas were subjected to stricter restrictions.
The tougher lockdown was the final disruption to a vacation season overshadowed by the pandemic. Governments from Asia to Europe have tightened social distancing rules and reintroduced lockdown measures to counter a surge in Covid-19 cases. The discovery of the new variant has deepened concerns that major restrictions will now last well into the new year.
Outside the UK, the new variant has already been identified in Denmark, Italy, the Netherlands and Australia.
Australian health officials said two cases of the variant were found in a managed quarantine in Sydney, while the Italian Ministry of Health reported on Sunday that a patient had been infected with the variant and isolated in Rome.
All viruses mutate over time and new variants occur frequently, including for the novel coronavirus. A variant similar to that identified in the UK has also been identified in South Africa, where scientists say it is spreading rapidly along the country’s coastal areas.
What do we know about the new variant?
The UK Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty warned on Saturday that the new British variant “can spread faster” and is responsible for 60% of new infections in the capital, which have almost doubled in the last week alone.
Whitty warned that there is currently no evidence that the new variant is more lethal or that it would neutralize the effectiveness of the newly approved vaccines. However, a more widely spread virus could lead to more cases, which in turn could lead to more hospitalizations and possibly more deaths. Even with a vaccine, this could make controlling the spread of the virus far less manageable.
Traceability based on genetic evidence suggests that the new British variant hit the market in September and, according to Public Health England (PHE), was spread in very small amounts in the population by mid-November.
“The increase in cases associated with the new variant first became known in late November when PHE was investigating why infection rates in Kent had not fallen despite national restrictions. We then discovered a cluster associated with this variant and rapidly moving in London and Essex is spreading. ” said the agency.
Several experts have suggested that this new variant might have been expanded due to a superspreader event. it might be that the mutation is somehow spreading it more easily without causing more serious illness; or it could have been accidental.
Scientists at EPH have yet to identify the exact mechanism behind the likely increase in transmission, although typically a mutation in the spike protein, the part of the virus that attaches to host cells, can increase its transmissibility, the agency said.
CNN’s Amy Woodyatt, Amy Cassidy, Fanny Wang and Stephanie Halasz contributed to the coverage