U.K. sees more countries cut travel ties over concern around new coronavirus strain

The United Kingdom stood shut off from much of Europe on Monday after allies cut transport ties over fears of a new coronavirus strain, sowing chaos for families, truckers and supermarkets just days before the Brexit cliff edge.

France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Austria, Switzerland, Ireland, Belgium, Israel and Canada were among those that shut off travel ties after Prime Minister Boris Johnson warned that a highly infectious new strain of the virus was a danger to the country.

Johnson will chair an emergency response meeting on Monday to discuss international travel, in particular the flow of freight in and out of Britain. EU officials are due to hold a meeting on co-ordinating their response.

France aims to establish Europe-wide sanitary protocol measures “in the coming hours” to allow the resumption of traffic flows with the U.K., Transport Minister Jean-Baptiste Djebbari said on Monday.

France shut its border to arrivals of people and trucks from the United Kingdom, closing off one of the most important trade arteries with mainland Europe, a step Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said was surprising.

“We’re doing everything we can to get that restarted,” Shapps told Sky. “They’ve said to us they want to restart the hauliers as quickly as possible.”

As families and truck drivers tried to navigate the travel bans to get back home in time for Christmas, Britain’s second-largest supermarket chain, Sainsbury’s, said gaps will start to appear on shelves within days if transport ties are not quickly restored with mainland Europe, including things like lettuce, broccoli and citrus fruit.

Shellfish producers in Scotland said they had tonnes of perishable products stranded on roads as the French border was closed. Disruption in Britain will also snarl supplies to Ireland.

Hong Kong is also due to ban all flights arriving from the United Kingdom from midnight, becoming the first city in Asia to do so. Asian nations including Japan and South Korea said they were closely monitoring the new strain.

Transport chaos

Britain’s Shapps said getting the bans lifted as swiftly as possible was his priority but that, given British preparations for the end of the Brexit transition period, the country was well positioned for disruption.

Johnson on Saturday cancelled Christmas plans for millions of British people due to what he said was a more infectious strain of the coronavirus, though he said there was no evidence that it was either more lethal or caused a more severe illness.

The new variant contains 23 different changes, many of them associated with how it binds to cells and enters them. Shapps said Britain had done some of the best global analysis of the mutations of the virus so it was simply seeing what was already at large in other countries.

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The British government triggered plans it had for stacking up trucks in the southeast county of Kent — part of its plans for potential disruption when the United Kingdom exits the EU’s orbit with — or without — a trade deal on Dec. 31.

Talks on a Brexit trade deal were due to continue on Monday.

Trucks are being stacked on the M20 motorway through Kent, heading towards the ports, which is closed to normal traffic. A nearby airport will also be used to hold freight.

Jon Swallow, a director of the British logistics group Jordon Freight, said the move by France would deter European drivers from coming to Britain both now and after the end of the year for fear they will get stuck.

“This is a serious situation as the stockpiled goods expected here are for Christmas and to help stabilize January,” he told Reuters. “This shows how fragile the cross channel route is.”

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