EU bosses throw isolated Britain a lifeline over Covid border closures

The European Union executive threw Britain a lifeline on Tuesday after it became stranded in Covid-19 isolation, recommending that EU members roll back sweeping border closures to allow freight to resume and let people return home for Christmas.

Much of the world shut their borders to Britain after a mutated variant of the novel coronavirus was discovered spreading swiftly across southern England, halting a chunk of trade with the rest of Europe and leaving truckers stranded.

With queues of trucks snaking to the horizon in England and supermarket shelves stripped just days before Christmas, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson scrambled to get French President Emmanuel Macron to lift a ban on freight from Britain.

Johnson and his advisers said the mutated variant of the coronavirus, which could be up to 70% more transmissible, was spreading rapidly but that it had been identified because British scientists were so efficient at genomic surveillance.

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Police hold back drivers trying to enter the Port of Dover in Kent after French authorities announced that the coronavirus ban was lifted and journeys from the UK will be allowed to resume, but that those seeking to travel must have a negative test result. (Photo by Steve Parsons/PA Images via Getty Images)
Police hold back drivers trying to enter the Port of Dover in Kent after French authorities announced that the coronavirus ban was lifted and journeys from the UK will be allowed to resume, but that those seeking to travel must have a negative test result. (Photo by Steve Parsons/PA Images via Getty Images)
Police officers form a cordon at the entrance to the port in Dover, in Kent, south east England on December 23, 2020, after the UK and France agreed a protocol to reopen the border to accompanied freight arriving in France from the UK. - France and Britain reopened cross-border travel after a snap 48-hour ban to curb the spread of a new coronavirus variant threatened UK supply chains. Accompanied frieght will now be allowed to cross the channel from the port of Dover but all lorry drivers will require a lateral flow test and a negative Covid-19 result before the travel. (Photo by JUSTIN TALLIS / AFP) (Photo by JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP via Getty Images)
Hauliers protesting outside the Port of Dover in Kent, after French authorities announced that the coronavirus ban has been lifted and journeys from the UK will be allowed to resume, but that those seeking to travel must have a negative test result. (Photo by Andrew Matthews/PA Images via Getty Images)
Police hold back drivers trying to enter the Port of Dover in Kent after French authorities announced that the coronavirus ban was lifted and journeys from the UK will be allowed to resume, but that those seeking to travel must have a negative test result. (Photo by Steve Parsons/PA Images via Getty Images)
DOVER, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 23: Travellers to Europe are stopped by police officers at the Port of Dover on December 23, 2020 in Dover, United Kingdom. Nearly 3,000 lorries were stranded around Kent after France banned all travel from the UK on Sunday, citing concerns over a new variant of covid-19. Late Tuesday, the countries reached a deal to restart freight travel for drivers with a recent negative covid-19 test. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
Drivers stand in the road as freight lorries and goods vehicles queue on a closed section of the M20 motorway which leads to the Port of Dover, near Ashford in Kent, south east England on December 22, 2020, after 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 December 20 it was closing to all accompanied freight and passengers due to the French border restrictions "until further notice". (Photo by JUSTIN TALLIS / AFP) (Photo by JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP via Getty Images)
Police hold back drivers trying to enter the Port of Dover in Kent after French authorities announced that the coronavirus ban was lifted and journeys from the UK will be allowed to resume, but that those seeking to travel must have a negative test result. (Photo by Steve Parsons/PA Images via Getty Images)
DOVER, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 23: Travellers to Europe are stopped by police officers at the Port of Dover on December 23, 2020 in Dover, United Kingdom. Nearly 3,000 lorries were stranded around Kent after France banned all travel from the UK on Sunday, citing concerns over a new variant of covid-19. Late Tuesday, the countries reached a deal to restart freight travel for drivers with a recent negative covid-19 test. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
Police hold back drivers trying to enter the Port of Dover in Kent after French authorities announced that the coronavirus ban was lifted and journeys from the UK will be allowed to resume, but that those seeking to travel must have a negative test result. (Photo by Steve Parsons/PA Images via Getty Images)
A sign informs drivers that the French border crossing is closed at the cordoned entrance to the ferry terminal at the Port of Dover in Kent, south east England on December 22, 2020, after France closed its borders to accompanied freight arriving from the UK due to the rapid spread of a new coronavirus strain. - Britain sought to sound a note of calm saying they were working as fast as possible to unblock trade across the Channel after France shut its borders to UK hauliers in a bid to contain a new variant of the coronavirus. (Photo by JUSTIN TALLIS / AFP) (Photo by JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP via Getty Images)
Lanes for frieght lorries are empty at the entrance to the closed ferry terminal at the Port of Dover in Kent, south east England on December 22, 2020, after France closed its borders to accompanied freight arriving from the UK due to the rapid spread of a new coronavirus strain. - Britain sought to sound a note of calm saying they were working as fast as possible to unblock trade across the Channel after France shut its borders to UK hauliers in a bid to contain a new variant of the coronavirus. (Photo by JUSTIN TALLIS / AFP) (Photo by JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP via Getty Images)
Freight lorries are seen parked at Dover Marina in Kent, south east England on December 22, 2020, adjacent to the Port of Dover as queuing trucks wait to continue their journeys after France closed its borders to accompanied freight arriving from the UK due to the rapid spread of a new coronavirus strain. - Britain sought to sound a note of calm saying they were working as fast as possible to unblock trade across the Channel after France shut its borders to UK hauliers in a bid to contain a new variant of the coronavirus. (Photo by JUSTIN TALLIS / AFP) (Photo by JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP via Getty Images)
Turkish long-haul truck drivers sit down to breakfast at a truck stop off the M20 motorway which leads to the Port of Dover, near Ashford in Kent, south east England on December 22, 2020, as they queue unable to continue their journeys after France closed its borders to accompanied freight arriving from the UK due to the rapid spread of a more-infectious new coronavirus strain. - Britain sought to sound a note of calm saying they were working as fast as possible to unblock trade across the Channel after France shut its borders to UK hauliers in a bid to contain a new variant of the coronavirus. (Photo by JUSTIN TALLIS / AFP) (Photo by JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP via Getty Images)
Freight lorries are seen parked at Dover Marina in Kent, south east England on December 22, 2020, adjacent to the Port of Dover as queuing trucks wait to continue their journeys after France closed its borders to accompanied freight arriving from the UK due to the rapid spread of a new coronavirus strain. - Britain sought to sound a note of calm saying they were working as fast as possible to unblock trade across the Channel after France shut its borders to UK hauliers in a bid to contain a new variant of the coronavirus. (Photo by JUSTIN TALLIS / AFP) (Photo by JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP via Getty Images)
A police car patrols the stacks of freight lorries and goods vehicles queuing on a closed section of the M20 motorway which leads to the Port of Dover, near Ashford in Kent, south east England at sunrise on December 22, 2020, after 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 December 20 it was closing to all accompanied freight and passengers due to the French border restrictions "until further notice". (Photo by JUSTIN TALLIS / AFP) (Photo by JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP via Getty Images)
A police car patrols along the stacks of Freight lorries and goods vehicles queuing on a closed section of the M20 motorway which leads to the Port of Dover, near Ashford in Kent, south east England at sunrise on December 22, 2020, after 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 December 20 it was closing to all accompanied freight and passengers due to the French border restrictions "until further notice". (Photo by JUSTIN TALLIS / AFP) (Photo by JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP via Getty Images)
Drivers are seen in the road as freight lorries and goods vehicles queue on a closed section of the M20 motorway which leads to the Port of Dover, near Ashford in Kent, south east England on December 22, 2020, after 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 December 20 it was closing to all accompanied freight and passengers due to the French border restrictions "until further notice". (Photo by JUSTIN TALLIS / AFP) (Photo by JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP via Getty Images)
Local traffic drives on an empty A20, the main route into Dover in Kent, south east England on December 22, 2020, as queuing trucks are organised and 'stacked' on the M20 and elsewhere waiting to continue their journeys after France closed its borders to accompanied freight arriving from the UK due to the rapid spread of a new coronavirus strain. - Britain sought to sound a note of calm saying they were working as fast as possible to unblock trade across the Channel after France shut its borders to UK hauliers in a bid to contain a new variant of the coronavirus. (Photo by JUSTIN TALLIS / AFP) (Photo by JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP via Getty Images)
A sign informs drivers that the French border crossing is closed at the cordoned entrance to the ferry terminal at the Port of Dover in Kent, south east England on December 22, 2020, after France closed its borders to accompanied freight arriving from the UK due to the rapid spread of a new coronavirus strain. - Britain sought to sound a note of calm saying they were working as fast as possible to unblock trade across the Channel after France shut its borders to UK hauliers in a bid to contain a new variant of the coronavirus. (Photo by JUSTIN TALLIS / AFP) (Photo by JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP via Getty Images)
A sign informs drivers that the French border crossing is closed at the cordoned entrance to the ferry terminal at the Port of Dover in Kent, south east England on December 22, 2020, after France closed its borders to accompanied freight arriving from the UK due to the rapid spread of a new coronavirus strain. - Britain sought to sound a note of calm saying they were working as fast as possible to unblock trade across the Channel after France shut its borders to UK hauliers in a bid to contain a new variant of the coronavirus. (Photo by JUSTIN TALLIS / AFP) (Photo by JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP via Getty Images)
Police block the exit from the Port of Dover in Kent, after French authorities announced that the coronavirus ban has been lifted and journeys from the UK will be allowed to resume, but that those seeking to travel must have a negative test result. (Photo by Andrew Matthews/PA Images via Getty Images)
Drivers stand in the road by their vehicles as they queue trying to enter the port of Dover in Kent, south east England, on December 23, 2020, that is still cordoned after the UK and France agreed a protocol to reopen the border to accompanied freight arriving in France from the UK requiring all lorry drivers to show a negative Covid-19 test. - France and Britain reopened cross-border travel after a snap 48-hour ban to curb the spread of a new coronavirus variant threatened UK supply chains. Accompanied frieght will now be allowed to cross the channel from the port of Dover but all lorry drivers will require a lateral flow test and a negative Covid-19 result before the travel. (Photo by JUSTIN TALLIS / AFP) (Photo by JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP via Getty Images)
Drivers and their vehicles queue trying to enter the port of Dover, in Kent, south east England on December 23, 2020, after the UK and France agreed a protocol to reopen the border to accompanied freight arriving in France from the UK. - France and Britain reopened cross-border travel after a snap 48-hour ban to curb the spread of a new coronavirus variant threatened UK supply chains. Accompanied frieght will now be allowed to cross the channel from the port of Dover but all lorry drivers will require a lateral flow test and a negative Covid-19 result before the travel. (Photo by JUSTIN TALLIS / AFP) (Photo by JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP via Getty Images)
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Britain has been trying for at least 24 hours to hash out a deal with France to allow the Dover-Calais route to open.

The European Commission advised that non-essential travel to and from Britain should be discouraged but said that people heading home should be allowed to do so, provided they undergo a Covid-19 test or quarantine for 10 days.

"Blanket travel bans should not prevent thousands of EU and UK citizens from returning to their homes," European Justice Commissioner Didier Reynders said in a statement.

The recommendations are designed to set common rules within the EU and the ambassadors will consider adopting them on Tuesday. However, border controls are governed by national policy, so each EU country can have its own rules.

One option is to roll out mass Covid-19 testing for truck drivers, though such tests usually take 24-48 hours for a result so it was not immediately clear how swiftly trucks could be moving again with Christmas days away.

The discovery of the new strain, just months before vaccines are expected to be widely available, sowed a fresh wave of panic in a pandemic that has killed about 1.7 million people worldwide and more than 67,000 in Britain.

The main worry is that the variant is significantly more transmissible than the original strain.

Scientists say there's no evidence that vaccines currently being deployed in the UK - made by Pfizer and BioNTech - or other Covid-19 shots in development will not protect against this variant, known as the B.1.1.7 lineage

FOOD SUPPLY WORRIES

The United Kingdom is in effective Covid-19 quarantine just nine days before it is due to part ways with the EU after a transition period - considered to be one of the biggest changes in post-World War Two British history.

Countries across Europe and beyond have suspended travel from Britain since the weekend. Germany imposed a ban on UK travellers from Tuesday that could remain in place until Jan. 6.

Cases of the new strain have also been detected in some other countries, including Denmark and Italy. Experts said the prevalence found in Britain might be down to better detection.

Britain's border crisis led to some panic-buying in the country: shoppers stripped shelves in some supermarkets of turkey, toilet rolls, bread and vegetables.

While the government said there was enough food for Christmas, market leader Tesco and No. 2 player Sainsbury's both said food supplies would be affected if the disruption continued.

STRANDED DRIVERS

Britain said 650 trucks were stacked up on the M20 in Kent, southern England, and 873 at nearby Manston Airport, now being used as a giant lorry park.

While trucks can still cross from France into Britain, they cannot return so European truck drivers are extremely reluctant to travel.

The border closures were causing headaches across Europe, especially those trying to transport perishable food. Milk suppliers were already trying to boost milk stocks in Britain ahead of Brexit.

"The plan was to stock up in the next 10 days so if there is a Brexit problem there are stocks for January," said Alexander Anton, the secretary general of the European Dairy Association. "Now you can't find a transport company to send a driver to the UK."

Lactalis, the world's biggest dairy company, has had to reschedule some lorry deliveries to Britain because of the border closure, a spokesman for the French group said.

As the sun rose, hundreds of stranded drivers waiting to be allowed to cross to France via either ferry or the Channel Tunnel brewed tea and coffee after a night spent on the M20 motorway.

Drivers, some swearing about Johnson and Macron, said they just wanted to get back home in time for Christmas.

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