Johnson holds crisis talks as countries cut off UK over mutant coronavirus

Boris Johnson will hold crisis talks with senior ministers and officials after France banned hauliers carrying freight across the channel amid fears over the new coronavirus strain.

Countries around the world have banned flights from the UK as an emergency response to the emergence of the mutant coronavirus, which spreads more easily than previous strains.

Ahead of a meeting of the Cobra committee chaired by the Prime Minister, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said emergency measures were being put in place to cope with a backlog of lorries heading for the channel ports.

20 PHOTOS
Travel restrictions imposed on UK
See Gallery
Travel restrictions imposed on UK
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)
HIDE CAPTION
SHOW CAPTION
of
SEE ALL
BACK TO SLIDE

But he sought to play down the potential impact, stressing that container freight was not hit by the French ban on travellers.

The markets tumbled in response to the escalating coronavirus crisis and the looming prospect of a no-deal Brexit at the end of the transition period on December 31.

More than £33 billion was wiped off the FTSE 100 within minutes of opening, as the index dropped more than 2%, although it later recovered to a fall of around 1.4%.

Along with France, countries across the world announced restrictions on UK travel following the disclosure that the highly infectious new strain is widespread across south-east England.

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

French health minister Olivier Veran said it was already "entirely possible" the new variant – VUI 202012/01 – was already circulating there, although tests had not detected it.

UK travel restrictions due to Covid-19
(PA Graphics)

As well as affecting freight flows from Dover and the Channel Tunnel at Folkestone, the disruption will leave passengers stranded in the run-up to Christmas.

Mr Shapps attempted to calm fears about the wider impact of the French decision.

The Transport Secretary said hauliers were "quite used to anticipating disruption", adding there were variations in supply "all the time".

Mr Shapps said he was talking to French counterpart Jean-Baptiste Djebbari and told Sky News: "The absolute key is to get this resolved as soon as possible."

Asked if consumers will see shortages in supermarkets, Mr Shapps said: "The supply chain is pretty robust in as much as you get variations in supply all the time. For the most part, people won't notice it."

He confirmed that the disused Manston Airport in Kent would be used as a lorry park, while Operation Stack – the contingency measures used to queue on the M20 whenever there is disruption at the channel – was already in place.

The Transport Secretary dismissed concerns about the impact of the travel ban on supplies of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, which is manufactured in Belgium, because container freight was unaffected.

The chief executive of the Road Haulage Association (RHA), Richard Burnett, said the disruption could cause problems with "fresh food supply" in the run-up to Christmas.

He told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "With it being so close to Christmas we're looking at 48 hours at this point in time in terms of the restrictions, we're likely to see Operation Stack building in terms of numbers of vehicles on the UK side and that might be a deterrent for EU hauliers to want to come so close to Christmas and end up being stranded here, that's part of the challenge that we're facing today."

Sainsbury's warned there could be "gaps over the coming days" in the supply of lettuce, some salad leaves, cauliflowers, broccoli and citrus fruit – all of which are imported from the continent at this time of year.

Mr Johnson faced demands to recall Parliament to address the crisis, which follows the introduction of a new Tier 4 level of lockdown on London and large parts of south-east England.

Concerns about the spread of the new variant also led to the dramatic scaling back of Christmas plans, with mixing banned in Tier 4 and the three-household provision being allowed for just Christmas Day itself in the rest of England.

Conservative former minister Sir Desmond Swayne questioned the timing of the Government's announcements.

"They've been looking at it since September, and how convenient when Parliament went into recess on Thursday suddenly they were then able to produce this revelation," he told Today.

"Let's see the evidence then, let's have Parliament back and show us and convince us – come clean."

Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said it was "imperative" the UK Government sought an extension to the Brexit transition period, which protects current trading arrangements with the EU until the end of the year.

Among the authorities imposing travel restrictions on passengers from the UK are: France, Ireland, the Netherlands, Belgium, Italy, Austria, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Denmark, El Salvador, Turkey, Canada and Hong Kong.

They reacted after Mr Johnson announced that the new variant was up to 70% more transmissible than the original strain while Health Secretary Matt Hancock admitted it was "out of control" and the Tier 4 lockdown 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.

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, following the rest of the UK.

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.

Read Full Story Click here to comment

FROM OUR PARTNERS