New Covid strain leaves UK isolated, with 1,500 trucks stranded at border

A driver stands in the road as freight lorries and goods vehicles queue on a closed section of the M20 motorway which leads to the Port of Dover, near Ashford in Kent, south east England on December 22, 2020.Justin Tallis | AFP | Getty Images

French and British officials are working to lift a ban on freight movement imposed by France amid continent-wide fear over a new coronavirus strain identified in the U.K. France activated the 48-hour border closure on Monday, and by Tuesday morning 1,500 trucks were stuck in Kent, unable to leave the U.K, British Home Secretary Priti Patel said Tuesday.  U.K.

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps has been urging drivers to avoid travelling through the affected counties of Kent, Sussex, and Hampshire. Passenger ferry and freight transport was also suspended at the major ports of Dover and Portsmouth, leaving several thousand ferry travelers stuck.     More than 40 countries have now suspended transport links with the U.K. after a variation of the coronavirus -- which health officials say could be up to 70% more transmissible -- was found to be sweeping the country. 

Medical experts say that the new virus strain is not more lethal than the original, and have expressed confidence that the coronavirus vaccines currently being authorized for use and deployed in Europe and the U.S. are sufficient to protect against it.

French borders closed sign at the entrance into the port of Dover due to a new strain of COVID-19 in the Eastern Dock where the cross channel port is situated with ferries departing to go to Calais in France on the 21st of December 2020, Dover, Kent, United Kingdom.Andrew Aitchison | In pictures via Getty Images

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has effectively cancelled Christmas plans for much of the country and put some 17 million people under strict lockdown rules. The coronavirus has already killed more than 67,000 in the U.K.  Efforts between the U.K. and France "to find a resolution" to the freight disruption are underway, Patel told the BBC on Tuesday morning. 

"You'll hear later on today in terms of developments and updates," she said, adding that getting truck drivers testing for Covid-19 at ports was part of the deliberations. Any resolution would need to be agreed to by Johnson and French President Emmanuel Macron, and would begin from Wednesday, France's minister for Europe said.  The European Commission on Tuesday issued a statement recommending a coordinated EU approach to travel measures and urged against transport bans.

"While ... all non-essential travel to and from the U.K. should be discouraged, essential travel and transit of passengers should be facilitated," the Commission's statement read. "Flight and train bans should be discontinued given the need to ensure essential travel and avoid supply chain disruptions." Transport for goods coming into the U.K. from France was still running, a Eurotunnel representative said Monday night, and unaccompanied freight trailers were still able to be shipped to France, Shapps said. The current ban affects only human-accompanied freight.  The news and the Christmas lockdown have induced panic buying, leading to empty supermarket shelves in some parts of the U.K.

Shapps said that shops remained well-stocked, but major U.K. chain Sainsbury's warned that it could see shortages of certain fresh foods within days if the disruption remains.   Prime Minister Johnson sought to allay concerns in a press conference where he stressed that the human-handled freight being suspended only constitutes 20% of all the freight moving between the U.K. and Europe. He said that the "vast majority" of food and medical supplies were still being transported as normal, telling shoppers not to panic about a food shortage despite images and reports of empty store shelves around the country.

The crisis comes just nine days before the U.K. is set to end its transitional period with the European Union, after voting to leave the bloc in 2016.

At the time of writing, the two sides had failed to reach a new trade arrangement.

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