BRUSSELS/LONDON (Reuters) – 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.
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.
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.
Writing by Guy Faulconbridge and Kate Holton; Editing by Pravin Char and Nick Macfiethrow isolated Britain a lifeline over COVID border closures
Photo – Lorry queues at the entrance to the port in Dover, Britain, 22 December 2020. France has closed its border with the UK for 48 hours over concerns about the new coronavirus variant. Freight lorries cannot cross by sea or through the Eurotunnel and the Port of Dover has closed to outbound traffic. EPA-EFE/VICKIE FLORES