Cut off: UK facing travel bans on fears of new virus strain

LONDON — Trucks waiting to get out of Britain backed up for miles and people were stranded at airports today as countries around the world imposed stringent travel restrictions over concerns about a new strain of the coronavirus that authorities say may spread more easily.

A growing number of countries are halting air travel from the U.K., while France has banned trucks from the country for a period of 48 hours while the new variant is assessed. British Health Secretary Matt Hancock has said the strain is “out of control” around London and southeastern England — but experts have urged caution, saying it’s not clear if it’s more lethal.

There were rising hopes today that France would allow traffic to flow again, if truck drivers take coronavirus tests on arrival.

While the French ban does not prevent trucks from heading for Britain, the move was creating concerns about shortages at a time of year when the U.K. produces very little of its food needs and relies heavily on the produce delivered from Europe by truck. In a sign of the British government’s concern, Prime Minister Boris Johnson called a meeting of the government’s emergency committee.

The ban was causing chaos in Kent, the southeastern English county that is home to many of Britain’s channel ports. The government has urged against travel to the county, but trucks snaked along the shoulders of the main highways to the ports anyway.

Around 10,000 trucks pass through Britain’s Port of Dover every day, accounting for about 20% of the U.K.’s trade in goods. British Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said France’s ban was “slightly surprising” — but tried to calm nerves by noting that the majority of Britain’s trade was not affected.

Shapps insisted that the public won’t notice any shortages “for the most part.”

France’s Minister of Transport Jean-Baptiste Djebbari indicated that a solution was coming. In a tweet, he said that “in the coming hours, at a European level, we will put a solid health protocol in place so that the flow from the United Kingdom can resume.”

And a croaky-voiced French President Emmanuel Macron, who is working from the Elysee Palace as he recovers from COVID-19, told a Cabinet meeting by video today: “We are looking at systematic testing upon arrival.”

Meanwhile, more countries were restricting travel. Canada, India, France, Germany, Italy and Poland are among the countries that have halted flights from the U.K. In the U.S., the governor of New York state said he wanted a ban on flights from Britain to New York City. Eurotunnel, the rail service that links Britain with mainland Europe, has also suspended services.

The moves come in the wake of Johnson’s announcement on Saturday that he was placing London and the southeast of England in a newly created high level of restrictions after a warning from its scientific advisers — using what is widely considered to be one of the world’s most sophisticated genome sequencing regimes — that it had detected a new variant of the coronavirus that may be more contagious.

Johnson said early indications are that the new variant of the virus is 70% more transmissible and is driving the rapid spread of new infections in the capital and surrounding areas. Johnson will meet with the COBRA civil contingencies committee later today amid warnings of “significant disruption” around the ports in the English Channel.

The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control said today that while preliminary analysis in the U.K. suggests the new variant is “significantly more transmissible,” there is no indication that infections are more severe. Experts, however, have stressed that even if the new strain is not more lethal, it’s inevitable that more cases will lead to more hospitalizations and subsequent virus-related deaths.

The Stockholm-based agency said a few cases with the new variant have been reported already by Iceland, Denmark and the Netherlands. It also cited media reports of cases in Belgium and Italy.

Roman Woelfel, head of the Bundeswehr Institute of Microbiology in Munich, said the variants being described by the U.K. have not been seen in patient samples screened in the German military institute. However, he noted the U.K.’s consortium for sequencing the virus is particularly good at finding new variants.

In Brussels, experts from EU member countries were meeting to discuss the new variant today.

The chaos at the border comes at a time of huge uncertainty for the U.K., less than two weeks before the final stage of Britain’s exit from the EU.

Though the U.K. left the bloc on Jan. 31, it is in a transition period during which it effectively abides by EU rules until the end of this year. Talks on a post-Brexit trade relationship are still deadlocked and are set to resume today.

Retailers played down fears of food shortages in the short term at least, but warned that there could be problems if the travel bans last for a while and if the U.K. and the EU fail to agree a post-Brexit trade deal.

The British Retail Consortium warned that the closure of France-to-U.K. traffic would create trading “difficulties” in the busy Christmas period.

“Retailers have stocked up on goods ahead of Christmas which should prevent immediate problems,” said Andrew Opie, Director of Food & Sustainability at the British Retail Consortium. “However, any prolonged closure of the French border would be a problem as the U.K. enters the final weeks before the transition ends.”

Trade association Logistics U.K. has urged people to stay calm and not to rush to supermarkets to stockpile goods.

“Shoppers should not panic buy,” said Kevin Green, its director of marketing and communications. “If freight gets moving again today, then the overall impact on fresh produce arriving to supermarkets should be fairly minimal.”

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