Trucks waiting to get out of Britain were backed up for kilometres and people were left stranded at airports as dozens of countries around the world slapped tough travel restrictions on the UK because of a new and seemingly more contagious strain of the coronavirus in England.
From Canada to India, one nation after another banned flights from Britain, while France barred the entry of trucks from Britain for 48 hours while the strain is assessed.
The precautions raised fears of food shortages in Britain if the restrictions drag on.
After a conversation with French President Emmanuel Macron, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he understood the reason for the new measures and expressed hope for a swift resumption in the free flow of traffic between the UK and France, perhaps within a few hours.
He said officials from both countries were working “to unblock the flow of trade as fast as possible”.
Macron said earlier that France was looking at establishing systematic testing of people for the virus on arrival.
New virus strain “out of control” in some areas
Over the weekend, Johnson imposed strict lockdown measures in London and neighboring areas where Health Secretary Matt Hancock said the new strain is “out of control”.
Experts said the early evidence indicates the strain is not more lethal, and they expressed confidence that the vaccines now being rolled out would still be effective against it.
After France announced on Sunday night that it was closing its borders to trucks from Britain, hundreds of vehicles, mainly operated by drivers from continental Europe, became stranded outside the English Channel port of Dover.
The lines shrank over the course of the day from 500 trucks to about 175 before rising again in the evening to 945, authorities said. Vehicles are being redirected to the disused Manston Airport nearby, which is being prepared to accommodate up to 4,000 trucks.
Around 10,000 trucks pass through the port of Dover every day, accounting for about 20% of the country’s trade in goods.
The virus is blamed for 1.7 million deaths worldwide, including about 68,000 in Britain, the second-highest death toll in Europe, behind Italy’s 69,000.
While the French ban does not prevent trucks from entering Britain, the move stoked worries about shortages at a time of year when the UK produces very little of its food and relies heavily on produce delivered from Europe by truck.
Supermarket chain Sainsbury’s warned that some products, such as lettuce, cauliflower, broccoli and citrus fruits, could soon be in short supply if the crisis not resolved in the coming days.
Canada, India, France, Germany, Italy, Spain and Sweden were among the countries that suspended flights from Britain for various lengths of time.
Strain 70 per cent more transmissible
Over the weekend, Johnson said early indications are that the variant is 70 per cent more transmissible and is driving the rapid spread of infections in the capital and surrounding areas.
As a result, he scrapped a planned relaxation of rules over Christmastime for millions of people and imposed other tough new restrictions in the affected zone. No indoor mixing of households will be allowed, and only essential travel will be permitted. Stores selling nonessential goods were ordered closed, putting a crimp in Christmas shopping.
The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control said that while preliminary analysis suggests the new variant is “significantly more transmissible,” there is no indication that infections are more severe. Still, experts have stressed that more infections will lead to more hospitalizations and deaths.
The Stockholm-based agency said a few cases of the variant have been reported by Iceland, Denmark and the Netherlands. It also cited news reports of cases in Belgium and Italy.
With the rollout of coronavirus vaccines set to pick up speed in early 2021, countries are clearly worried about the new variant.
“I think the vaccine will be fine,” said Dr. Julian Tang, a clinical virologist at the University of Leicester. But the new strain “is spreading so fast we may not be able to reach the vulnerable population, the elderly, in time with the vaccine before the virus does.”