UK isolated as countries ban travel and limit freight over Covid variant

Financial Times
Britain and EU to hold separate emergency meetings on Monday to deal with escalating crisis

Trucks were already being held up at Dover port on Saturday. The UK’s main freight link with the EU usually handles up to 10,000 lorries a day © ANDY RAIN/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Trucks were already being held up at Dover port on Saturday. The UK’s main freight link with the EU usually handles up to 10,000 lorries a day © ANDY RAIN/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

More countries banned travel from the UK on Monday amid concern over a more infectious strain of Covid-19 as French restrictions curtailed freight transport across the English Channel.

Poland and Turkey joined countries including Germany, France, Italy and Ireland that were among the first on Sunday to bar people coming from the UK after a sharp rise in coronavirus cases. Belgium, Austria, Finland, the Netherlands, Switzerland and India are among those to also block UK arrivals.

A move by Paris to impose a 48-hour block on people and truck-borne freight coming into France from Britain from Monday prompted the closure of transport services across the English Channel, notably between Dover and Calais.

It raised the prospect of crippling delays on the UK’s main freight link with the EU, which usually handles up to 10,000 trucks a day.

Grant Shapps, UK transport secretary, indicated that goods continued to flow from France to the UK. In addition, he said goods continued to move from the UK to France when they were “unaccompanied” — meaning they had been loaded on to ships as opposed to being driven by truck.

But Eamon Ryan, Irish transport minister, said some of the estimated 250 Irish truckers stuck in Britain trying to access the continent would have to return to Ireland.

The EU is due to hold a meeting of its crisis response committee to discuss the new variant at 11am Brussels time. Boris Johnson, British prime minister, is to chair an emergency meeting of UK officials to discuss ways to ensure the flow of freight into the country.

The new virus restrictions come at a fraught moment in Britain’s negotiations to leave the EU, with talks on a trade deal continuing ahead of the UK’s scheduled departure from the single market on January 1.

After an emergency inner cabinet meeting, the office of the French prime minister, Jean Castex, announced on Sunday: “It has been decided to suspend . . . all movements of people, including those related to freight transport, by road, air, sea or rail coming from the UK . . . The flow of people and transport into the UK is not affected.”

French officials said the 48-hour suspension will allow time for the 27 EU member states to co-ordinate their response. They envisage a system allowing traffic from the UK, with pre-departure Covid-19 tests, from December 22.

Mr Shapps said road hauliers were unlikely to spread the virus. “They’re actually the least likely people to pick up the virus and that’s why other countries haven’t banned the haulers as it’s actually a pretty solitary professional,” he said.

The road approaches in England and France to the main freight routes across the English Channel had already been congested for two weeks, largely because of stockpiling by UK companies ahead of the imposition of customs controls between Britain and the EU on January 1.

The French move caused alarm in UK industry. Although freight was still allowed into England from France, hauliers were questioning whether to make the journey if lorries could not return.

“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,” said the British Retail Consortium.

On Sunday Eurotunnel announced its service from the UK to the continent would be suspended for passengers and freight traffic from 11pm for 48 hours because of the French initiative.

Soon afterwards, the Port of Dover announced it was closing its ferry terminal to traffic bound for France. Eurostar announced it was not running trains between London, Brussels and Amsterdam on Monday, as well as Paris and Lille. 

The Road Haulage Association said the Eurotunnel service would still bring traffic into Britain from the EU. It was waiting to hear confirmation that ferry operators would run empty vessels from Dover to France in order to return with lorries from the EU.

The new, more contagious strain is thought to have originated in south-east England but has already been found in Denmark, Italy and Australia. The Netherlands said it had detected a case of the same strain in early December and was investigating. KLM is flying planes from the UK to Amsterdam with cargo but not passengers. It is still taking passengers on inbound flights to the UK.

President Emmanuel Macron of France, who is in isolation after contracting Covid-19, spoke to Angela Merkel, German chancellor, as well as European Commission and Council presidents Ursula von der Leyen and Charles Michel, the Elysée Palace said.

Ireland banned flights and passenger ferries from Britain from midnight on Sunday for at least two days. Ferry crossings will continue to keep supply chains moving.

Financial Times

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