Johnson holds crisis talks as France halts freight from UK over new Covid strain

Coronavirus - Mon Dec 21, 2020

Boris Johnson will hold crisis talks with ministers after France banned lorries carrying freight from the UK and countries around the world ended flights amid fears over the new mutant coronavirus strain.

The Prime Minister will chair a meeting of the Government's Cobra civil contingencies committee on Monday amid warnings of "significant disruption" around the Channel ports in Kent.

Hauliers were urged to stay away from the area amid warnings of potential problems as the end of the Brexit transition period looms on December 31.

Coronavirus - Mon Dec 21, 2020

Kent Police said they were implementing Operation Stack in a bid to ease potential congestion, while the Department for Transport said Manston Airport was also being prepared as another contingency measure against the anticipated level of disruption.

Countries including France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium, Poland, Austria, Denmark, Ireland, and Bulgaria announced restrictions on UK travel following the disclosure that the highly infectious new strain is widespread across south-east England.

Italian authorities also announced the mutant strain had been detected in a traveller who recently returned to the country from the UK.

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21 December 2020, Berlin: The information board at the capital's airport shows flights from London-Gatwick and Manchester as "cancelled". Following the emergence of a new variant of the coronavirus, numerous countries are suspending flights from the UK for the time being - including Germany. Photo: Paul Zinken/dpa (Photo by Paul Zinken/picture alliance via Getty Images)
Freight lorries and goods vehicles are pictured parked in a paring lot near the Port of Dover in in Dover, Kent, on the south east coast of England on December 21, 2020, as a string of countries banned travellers all but unaccompanied freight arriving from the UK, due to the rapid spread of a more-infectious new coronavirus strain. - Britain's critical south coast port at Dover said on Sunday it was closing to all accompanied freight and passengers due to the French border restrictions "until further notice". (Photo by Adrian DENNIS / AFP) (Photo by ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP via Getty Images)
Freight lorries at organised into stacks on the M20 motorway which leads to the Port of Dover at Mersham in Kent, south east England on December 21, 2020, as a string of countries banned travel including accompanied freight arriving from the UK, due to the rapid spread of a more-infectious new coronavirus strain. - Britain's critical south coast port at Dover said on Sunday it was closing to all accompanied freight and passengers due to the French border restrictions "until further notice". (Photo by Adrian DENNIS / AFP) (Photo by ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP via Getty Images)
People queue for a shuttle train at Gatwick Airport in West Sussex, amid concerns that borders will close and with the public being urged to adhere to Government guidance after Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced on Saturday that from Sunday areas in the South East currently in Tier 3 will be moved into a new Tier 4 for two weeks Ð effectively returning to the lockdown rules of November, after scientists warned of the rapid spread of the new variant coronavirus. (Photo by Gareth Fuller/PA Images via Getty Images)
Passengers at Gatwick Airport in West Sussex, amid concerns that borders will close and with the public being urged to adhere to Government guidance after Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced on Saturday that from Sunday areas in the South East currently in Tier 3 will be moved into a new Tier 4 for two weeks Ð effectively returning to the lockdown rules of November, after scientists warned of the rapid spread of the new variant coronavirus. (Photo by Gareth Fuller/PA Images via Getty Images)
LONDON, UNITED KONGDOM - DECEMBER 20: Passengers arrive at St Pancras International train station in London, United Kingdom on December 20, 2020 as several European countries ban travel to and from the UK due to fears over the emergence of a new variant of coronavirus. Large parts of south-east England, including London, are now under a new, stricter level of restrictions to curb the spread of the virus during the upcoming holiday season. (Photo by Hasan Esen/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
Police and port staff turn away vehicles from the Port of Dover in Kent which has been closed after the French government's announcement it will not accept any passengers arriving from the UK for the next 48 hours amid fears over the new mutant coronavirus strain. (Photo by Steve Parsons/PA Images via Getty Images)
Police and port staff turn away vehicles from the Port of Dover in Kent which has been closed after the French government's announcement it will not accept any passengers arriving from the UK for the next 48 hours amid fears over the new mutant coronavirus strain. (Photo by Steve Parsons/PA Images via Getty Images)
Police and port staff turn away vehicles from the Port of Dover in Kent which has been closed after the French government's announcement it will not accept any passengers arriving from the UK for the next 48 hours amid fears over the new mutant coronavirus strain. (Photo by Steve Parsons/PA Images via Getty Images)
Empty ramps and lanes at the Port of Dover in Kent which has been closed after the French government's announcement it will not accept any passengers arriving from the UK for the next 48 hours amid fears over the new mutant coronavirus strain. (Photo by Steve Parsons/PA Images via Getty Images)
The White Cliffs are reflected in the windscreen of a lorry whilst the driver sits his cab and queues to enter the port of Dover in Kent as the UK marked less than two weeks until 2021 and the end of the Brexit transition period. (Photo by Gareth Fuller/PA Images via Getty Images)
Police and port staff turn away vehicles from the Port of Dover in Kent which has been closed after the French government's announcement it will not accept any passengers arriving from the UK for the next 48 hours amid fears over the new mutant coronavirus strain. (Photo by Steve Parsons/PA Images via Getty Images)
Ramps and lanes are empty at the Port of Dover in Kent, England which has been closed after the French government's announcement Monday, Dec. 21, 2020. France banned all travel from the UK for 48 hours from midnight Sunday, including trucks carrying freight through the tunnel under the English Channel or from the port of Dover on England's south coast. (Steve Parsons/PA via AP)
LONDON, UNITED KONGDOM - DECEMBER 20: Police officers patrol at St Pancras International train station in London, United Kingdom on December 20, 2020. several European countries ban travel to and from the UK due to fears over the emergence of a new variant of coronavirus. Large parts of south-east England, including London, are now under a new, stricter level of restrictions to curb the spread of the virus during the upcoming holiday season. (Photo by Hasan Esen/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
Passengers at Gatwick Airport in West Sussex, amid concerns that borders will close and with the public being urged to adhere to Government guidance after Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced on Saturday that from Sunday areas in the South East currently in Tier 3 will be moved into a new Tier 4 for two weeks Ð effectively returning to the lockdown rules of November, after scientists warned of the rapid spread of the new variant coronavirus. (Photo by Gareth Fuller/PA Images via Getty Images)
21 December 2020, Lower Saxony, Langenhagen: Emergency vehicles of the rescue service stand on the grounds of Hannover-Langenhagen Airport. Due to the new variant of the coronavirus, the Federal Ministry of the Interior has instructed the Federal Police to systematically check travellers from Great Britain and South Africa with immediate effect. Photo: Moritz Frankenberg/dpa (Photo by Moritz Frankenberg/picture alliance via Getty Images)
21 December 2020, Lower Saxony, Langenhagen: Emergency personnel stand by and in an airport fire brigade bus on the grounds of Hannover-Langenhagen Airport. Due to the new variant of the coronavirus, the Federal Ministry of the Interior has instructed the Federal Police to systematically check travellers from Great Britain and South Africa with immediate effect. Photo: Moritz Frankenberg/dpa (Photo by Moritz Frankenberg/picture alliance via Getty Images)
ISTANBUL, TURKEY - DECEMBER 21: Passengers arrive at Istanbul airport as Turkey began testing passengers arriving from the UK early Monday for a new variant of the coronavirus after health officials in Britain confirmed it was rapidly spreading in the country on December 21, 2020 in Istanbul, Turkey. All passengers contact details were taken and they are required to self-isolate.Turkey joined other European countries late Sunday in banning flights from the UK and other countries due to concerns over the new fast-moving coronavirus strain. (Photo by Abidin Mutlu Bozdag/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
ISTANBUL, TURKEY - DECEMBER 21: Passengers arrive at Istanbul airport as Turkey began testing passengers arriving from the UK early Monday for a new variant of the coronavirus after health officials in Britain confirmed it was rapidly spreading in the country on December 21, 2020 in Istanbul, Turkey. All passengers contact details were taken and they are required to self-isolate.Turkey joined other European countries late Sunday in banning flights from the UK and other countries due to concerns over the new fast-moving coronavirus strain. (Photo by Abidin Mutlu Bozdag/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
Empty check-in lanes at the Port of Dover in Kent which has been closed after the French government's announcement it will not accept any passengers arriving from the UK for the next 48 hours amid fears over the new mutant coronavirus strain. (Photo by Steve Parsons/PA Images via Getty Images)
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With France suspending all traffic from the UK for 48 hours, it raised fears that trade flows could be severely disrupted while passengers across Europe could be left stranded in the final run-up to Christmas.

A No 10 spokesman said: "The Prime Minister will chair a Cobra meeting tomorrow to discuss the situation regarding international travel, in particular the steady flow of freight into and out of the UK.

"Further meetings are happening this evening and tomorrow morning to ensure robust plans are in place."

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps urged people including hauliers to stay away from the area around the Channel ports.

"We expect significant disruption in the area. My department is urgently working with Highways England and Kent Council on contingency measures to minimise traffic disruption in the area," he said.

The British Retail Consortium (BRC) warned the closure of France to UK traffic would create "difficulties" for UK imports and exports in the busy Christmas period.

Andrew Opie, the BRC's director of food and sustainability, said any "prolonged" disruption would be a problem in the run-up to the end of the Brexit transition period on December 31.

"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," he said.

"This is a key supply route for fresh produce at this time of year.

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"We urge the UK Government and the EU to find a pragmatic solution to this as soon as possible, to prevent disruption for consumers.

"Retailers have stocked up on goods ahead of Christmas which should prevent immediate problems.

"However, any prolonged closure of the French border would be a problem as the UK enters the final weeks before the transition ends on December 31."

Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said it was "imperative" the UK Government sought an extension to the Brexit transition period.

"The new Covid strain – and the various implications of it – means we face a profoundly serious situation, and it demands our 100% attention," she said.

"It would be unconscionable to compound it with Brexit."

Germany, which holds the rotating EU presidency, announced it was calling emergency talks on Monday to co-ordinate the response of the bloc's 27 member states.

It came after the Irish government said it was imposing a 48-hour ban on flights from Britain while ferries would be restricted to freight only.

The Netherlands said it will stop flights from the UK at least until the end of the year while Belgium has imposed a 24-hour ban on flights and rail links while it assesses the situation.

Italy is prohibiting entry to the country by anyone who has been in the UK in the last 14 days and flights are banned until January 6 while Austria, the Czech Republic, El Salvador, Turkey and Canada also imposed new restrictions.

Countries reacted after Mr Johnson announced on Saturday that the new variant was up to 70% more transmissible than the original strain as he put London and parts of the South East and East of England into a two-week Christmas lockdown, with nearly 18 million people in a new Tier 4.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock admitted the new variant coronavirus was "out of control" and said the new restrictions may have to remain in place for months.

Concerns about the rapid spread of the disease were underlined with the publication of the latest official figures showing there had been a further 35,928 lab-confirmed cases of coronavirus in the UK as of 9am on Sunday.

Millions of people have been forced to tear up their festive plans, with Mr Johnson effectively cancelling Christmas for those in Tier 4.

In the rest of England, Christmas easing is severely curtailed, with households allowed to gather for just one day – Christmas Day itself – rather than the five days previously planned, while Scotland and Wales are also restricting Christmas "bubbles" to a single day.

And at an emergency meeting late on Sunday night, the Northern Ireland Executive agreed to reduce the five day Christmas bubbling arrangements to just one day.

Ministers also debated a temporary ban on travel from Great Britain to Northern Ireland because of the new Covid variant, with further discussions expected on Monday.

Dr Yvonne Doyle, medical director at Public Health England, said: "This sharp and sudden increase is of serious concern."

She said most of the new cases were concentrated in London and the South East – where the new strain is thought to have originated – although it was too soon to say if they were linked to it.

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