LONDON – Britain was virtually cut off from the rest of Europe on Monday, with flights and trains banned by some 40 countries and freight deliveries interrupted to French ports as neighbors desperately tried to prevent a rapidly spreading variant of the coronavirus to jump. across the Channel.
The sudden disruption has left Britain isolated and edgy, its people stranded at airports or quarantined at home. It sparked panic-buying fears in UK supermarkets, as a nation already rocked by a mysterious new strain of the virus now had to worry about running out of fresh food in the days leading up to Christmas.
It all added to a chilling glimpse, just 10 days before the deadline to negotiate a post-Brexit trade deal between Britain and the European Union, of what a chaotic rift between the two sides could look like. .
For Prime Minister Boris Johnson, whose management of the pandemic has been hampered by a reluctance to take harsh action followed by abrupt reversals in the face of alarming new evidence, the cascading events have posed perhaps the gravest challenge to his ardently pro-Brexit government.
As he snuggled into emergency meetings, Mr Johnson simultaneously faced a growing public health crisis, worsening economic upheaval and trade talks in Brussels that could cement the rift between Britain and its neighbors.
Fears of a dangerous disruption to the food supply eased somewhat over the course of the day, as French officials said they were working on developing health protocols that would allow cross-cargo shipments. channel to resume.
Mr Johnson said he telephoned President Emmanuel Macron and the French leader told him “he was keen to resolve the issue in the next few hours.” Speaking at a press conference, Mr Johnson assured Britons: ‘Everyone can continue to shop normally.’
Yet multiplier problems hammered the stock market and depressed the pound. And there was a disturbing feeling that Britain was entering a new, more volatile phase of the pandemic just as its relationship with its biggest trading partner was in uncharted territory.
Political commentators seized on a precedent for chaos, with a reminder of the turbulent events of 1978 and 1979, when nationwide strikes, made worse by harsh winter conditions, led to the collapse of the Labor government and the political rise of Margaret Thatcher.
“The government needs to do something to bring things under control,” said Jonathan Powell, who was chief of staff to former Prime Minister Tony Blair when a series of strikes in 2000 sparked a politically damaging fuel crisis. “The only thing the public hates is when the government loses control.”
The trigger for the current upheaval was Mr Johnson’s announcement on Saturday that he was imposing a strict lockdown on London and the south-east of England, after new data indicated that a viral mutation had had a turbocharged infection rate in these regions.
Scientists who briefed the press on Monday estimate that the variant is 50 to 70% more transmissible than the original virus. (Mr Johnson had earlier said up to 70 percent.) They raised the possibility that children might be more susceptible to the original virus, although this may be affected by Britain’s decision to leave schools open during lockouts, which means kids are shuffling more than adults.
Mr Johnson’s move was a reversal of three days earlier, when he pledged to honor his vow to ease restrictions for a few days around Christmas so that families can get together. Hours after the announcement, thousands of people stormed train stations and airports in an attempt to flee London before the new rules came into force.
This, in turn, prompted countries to ban flights from Britain – a list that started with the Netherlands and Belgium and expanded to include 17 European countries, as well as Canada, India, Russia, Jordan and Hong Kong. The United States has yet to suspend flights, although New York Governor Andrew M. Cuomo was among those urging the Trump administration to do so.
The European Union has said it will develop a coordinated strategy on how to manage travel to and from Britain. But for now, his actions were uncoordinated, adding to the uncertainty at Heathrow, one of the main airports serving London, and other airports.
The variant has already been identified in small numbers in Denmark, the Netherlands and Australia, according to World Health Organization officials. Italy’s Health Ministry reported on Sunday evening that two people arriving in the country from Britain were carrying the strain.
British officials have said they expect countries to ban travelers, as epidemiologists believe it is necessary to break the chain of transmission across borders. But they seem to have been caught off guard by the French government’s decision to suspend freight shipments, carried by truck drivers, for 48 hours.
France did not take such a step in March, when the virus first broke out in Europe, as the short crossing between the ports of Dover and Calais is a vital trade link for Britain and the continent. , with thousands of trucks making the trip every day.
The restriction led to stacks of several kilometers on both sides of the channel, with hundreds of trucks loaded with seafood and seafood being stopped along the highway to the port of Dover. In Calais, on the French side, truckers waited for health advice before driving their loads on ferries to Great Britain. The lack of clarity left between 2,000 and 3,000 French truckers stranded on the British side.
UK Transport Minister Grant Shapps said around 20% of freight entering and leaving the country has been affected. Unaccompanied goods – such as those loaded in sea containers – continued to be admitted into France and goods could still be transported to other countries, such as the Netherlands, from smaller ports. He also said the restrictions would not affect shipments of the coronavirus vaccine, which originate from a Pfizer factory in Belgium.
Mr Shapps described the situation as a sort of empty race for possible post-Brexit disruption, noting that government contingency planning had reduced the number of trucks stranded outside the port of Dover by more than 500 at about 175.
Yet Monday’s stalemate was so big that a supermarket chain warned of possible shortages of some food items before Christmas, and business groups called for urgent action.
“They carry perishable goods worth millions and time is running out for this product to survive these delays,” said James Withers, Managing Director of Scotland Food & Drink.
He estimated Scotland would normally ship £ 5million, or around $ 6.7million, of food to France each day this week. Britain sends more seafood to the European Union than it imports, especially stocks of salmon, lobster and langoustines.
The disarray, Mr Withers said, should prompt the government to rethink what happens at the end of the Brexit transition period on December 31.
“The UK government must recognize that we are in the middle of a perfect storm and risking further disruption and financial damage to businesses in just 10 days is totally unacceptable,” he said.
Supermarket chains said food supplies for Christmas were already on hand, but if the trip was suspended longer, there would be a shortage of items such as lettuce, greens, cauliflower, broccoli and citrus. About a quarter of the food consumed in Britain is imported from the European Union.
“Continental truckers won’t want to travel here if they’re really afraid of getting stranded,” said Ian Wright, chief executive of the Food and Drink Federation.
The closure of ports is also disrupting parcel deliveries. Deutsche Post DHL said on Monday that deliveries to Britain would also be halted as more countries impose travel bans on Britain.
With years of experience dealing with disruption, the Port of Dover typically manages to clear traffic backlogs quickly once ferry service resumes. However, the situation remains fluid and any additional health checks could lead to further delays.
The implications of the chaos for Britain’s trade talks with Brussels were unclear. Negotiators failed to strike a deal on Sunday evening, which the European Parliament had set as a deadline to ratify the deal in time for it to take effect on January 1.
But talks continued in Brussels on Monday, and both sides said a deal could be rushed through even at that late date. Negotiators appear to have made progress on the most contentious issue – European access to UK fishing grounds – although there have been no signs of an imminent breakthrough.
Some analysts have interpreted France’s decision to halt freight traffic as a tough tactic to remind Britain of the costs of failing to secure a trade deal. Others said they were struck by the lack of communication between Britain and its European neighbors after scientists identified the variant in Britain several weeks ago.
“If the Johnson government had thought about this and talked to its partners about it, it could have been handled better,” said Anand Menon, professor of European politics at King’s College London. “There seems to have been a failure in the exchange of information.”
Mr Menon said the prime minister’s last-minute style and lack of consultation would make it politically more difficult for him to both sell a trade deal and persuade lawmakers of the need for further lockdowns.
After Mr Johnson announced his last lockdown on Saturday, some lawmakers in his Conservative Party called for a recall from Parliament, but there are no plans for one at the moment.
“The idea that this government is treating Parliament with contempt is taking hold,” said Mr. Menon. “It makes the political cost of it harder to bear.”
While the threat of a fast-spreading variant would have prompted a travel ban under all circumstances, analysts said Brexit made it politically easier for European governments to isolate Britain.
Mr Powell, Tony Blair’s former assistant, recalled an apocryphal newspaper headline – “Fog in Channel; Continent cut off ”- this is often used to describe an inward-looking Britain and its arm’s length relationship with the rest of Europe.
“Little England has always wanted to cut off the continent,” said Powell. “They finally made it.”
Eshe Nelson contributed reporting