The United Kingdom was on Monday shut off from much of Europe after its closest allies cut transport ties due to fears about a new strain of the coronavirus, sowing chaos for families and companies just days before it exits the European Union’s orbit.
France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Austria, Switzerland, Ireland, Belgium, Israel and Canada shut off travel ties after Prime Minister Boris Johnson warned that a highly infectious new strain of the virus was a danger to the country.
Johnson will chair an emergency response meeting on Monday to discuss international travel, in particular the flow of freight in and out of Britain.
France shut its border to arrivals of people and trucks from the United Kingdom, closing off one of the most important trade arteries with mainland Europe, a step Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said was surprising.
“I’m in touch with my opposite number in France and we’re doing everything we can to get that restarted, in fact they’ve said to us they want to restart the hauliers as quickly as possible,” Shapps told Sky.
Shapps said getting the bans lifted as swiftly as possible was his priority but that given British preparations for the end of the Brexit transition period, the country was well prepared for disruption.
Talks on a Brexit trade deal were due to continue on Monday.
Johnson on Saturday cancelled Christmas plans for millions of British people due to what he said was a more infectious strain of the coronavirus, though he said there was no evidence that it was either more lethal or caused a more severe illness.
The new variant contains 23 different changes, many of them associated with alterations in a protein made by the virus. Shapps said Britain had done some of the best global analysis of the mutations of the virus so it was simply seeing what was already at large in other countries.
Chief Scientific Adviser Patrick Vallance said on Saturday he thought the new variant may be in other countries but also might have started in the United Kingdom.
The British government triggered plans it had for stacking up trucks in the southeast county of Kent – part of its plans for potential disruption when the United Kingdom exits the EU’s orbit with – or without – a trade deal at 2300 GMT on Dec. 31.
Trucks are being stacked on the M20 motorway through the county, heading towards the ports, which is closed to normal traffic. A nearby airport will also be used to hold freight.
“Sick Man of Europe”, the Daily Mirror newspaper said on its front page beside a picture of Johnson while the Sun newspaper said “French show no merci”.
The closure of the Channel Tunnel and ports for onward travel to France will affect the export of goods such as fish and shell fish from Scotland to Europe, and the import of food for British supermarkets if, as expected, European drivers refuse to travel.
Trucks have been told to avoid Kent to prevent any further build up of trucks.
“The closure of France to UK traffic, including accompanied freight poses difficulties for UK capacity to import and export key goods during the busy Christmas period,” said Andrew Opie, director of food & sustainability at the British Retail Consortium.
“While goods can enter from France, few haulage firms will be willing to send trucks and drivers across to the UK without a guarantee they can return to the EU in a timely manner.”