UK, ‘sick man of Europe’, holds crisis talks amid mutant virus

France closes borders and several countries ban UK passengers in a bid to limit mutant coronavirus infection gripping nation.

UK PM Boris Johnson is under immense pressure as his country battles a new coronavirus strain days before leaving the EU single market [File: Toby Melville/Reuters]

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson will chair a meeting of the government’s emergency committee after France closed its borders to the UK to stem the spread of a new strain of the coronavirus circulating in London and the southeast of England.

The meeting of the COBRA civil contingencies committee later Monday comes amid warnings of “significant disruption” around the ports in the English Channel, with traffic backlogs stretching miles into the southeastern English county of Kent.

Freight transport is facing massive disruptions after France closed its borders for 48 hours, which means lorries cannot get across the English Channel by boat. The government has urged everyone to avoid travelling to Kent, which hosts many of the cross-Channel ports, notably at Dover. Eurotunnel has also suspended services.

“Sick Man of Europe”, the Daily Mirror newspaper said on its front page beside a picture of Johnson while the Sun newspaper said: “French show no merci”.

The closure of the English Channel and ports for onward travel to France will affect the export of goods such as fish and shellfish from Scotland to Europe, and the import of food for British supermarkets if, as expected, European drivers refuse to travel.

British supermarket group Sainsbury’s warned on Monday that gaps will start to appear on shelves within days if transport ties are not quickly restored with mainland Europe.

“If nothing changes, we will start to see gaps over the coming days on lettuce, some salad leaves, cauliflowers, broccoli and citrus fruit – all of which are imported from the continent at this time of year,” Sainsbury’s said.

It urged the British and French governments to come to a mutually agreeable solution that prioritises the immediate passage of produce and any other food at the ports.

Mujtaba Rahman, managing director for Europe at political risk consultancy firm Eurasia Group, said action on the continent was being driven by “big concern” over the potency of the new virus strain.

“Governments are tired and populations are fatigued – and the last thing they want is to be dealing with a mutant strain of the virus,” Rahman told Al Jazeera. “For that reason, governments are being extremely risk averse.”

Canada and Poland are among the latest countries to halt travel from the UK, following the lead of many in Europe, including Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Denmark, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy and the Netherlands.

The moves come in the wake of Johnson’s announcement on Saturday that he was placing London and the southeast of England in a new Tier 4 level of restrictions after a warning from scientists that the new variant of the coronavirus was spreading much faster than existing strains.

He said the new variant of the virus is 70-percent more transmissible and is driving the rapid spread of new infections. On Sunday, the UK registered a record 35,928 new infections.

While experts are stressing that there is no evidence that the new strain is any more lethal, it is inevitable that more cases will lead to more hospitalisations and subsequent virus-related deaths.

The new variant contains 23 changes, many of them associated with how it binds to cells and enters them.

French ban on hauliers

British Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said France’s ban on freight hauliers was “slightly surprising” and that he is putting contingency plans for Kent in place, including the opening up of a truck park and providing “welfare” for some of those drivers stuck there.

“The Kent Dover-to-Calais Eurotunnel, what we call the short straits, is probably about 20 percent of goods going to and from, in and out of the country,” he told Sky News. “But it’s not the mainstay. Most goods actually come in and out by unaccompanied containers and those will continue to flow.”

Shapps insisted that the public will not notice any shortages “for the most part” as a result of the ban on trucks, and that the supply of coronavirus vaccines will continue as they come via containers that are unaffected.

All this economic disruption comes at a time of huge uncertainty for the UK, less than two weeks before it leaves the EU’s tariff-free single market and customs union on December 31.

Though the UK left the bloc on January 31, it is in a transition period that effectively sees it abide by EU rules until the end of this year. Talks on a post-Brexit trade relationship are still deadlocked and are set to resume on Monday.

The British Retail Consortium warned that the closure of France-to-UK traffic would create trade “difficulties” in the busy Christmas period.

Andrew Opie, the BRC’s director of food and sustainability, said any prolonged disruption would be a problem in the run-up to the end of the Brexit transition period.

“While goods can enter from France, few haulage firms will be willing to send trucks and drivers across to the UK without a guarantee they can return to the EU in a timely manner,” he said.

Al Jazeera’s Rory Challands, reporting from Maidstone, in the county of Kent, southeastern England, said: “The UK feels a more lonely and isolated place than it did just yesterday.

“Transport of freight across into France is severely impeded at the moment, only unaccompanied freight is being allowed through … that will put lots of businesses, which are already trying to deal with the possible onset of a no-deal Brexit in a very serious position when it comes to supplying themselves and supplying the country with things like food.

“This is a very potent mind sharpener as the crunch talks for Brexit go into their final days.

“There are people who are saying this means the UK should be asking for an extension of the transition period which ends at the end of the month.”

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies