Several European countries banned flights and freight links with the UK on Sunday as the new Covid-19 variant sent the number of new cases to a record day-high of 35,928 and the lack of a deal with the EU added new uncertainty and urgency to the post-Brexit phase in 10 days from January 1.
Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s first minster, demanded that the Brexit transition period that ends on December 31 be extended, a demand Prime Minister Boris Johnson has so far resisted.
She said: “It’s now imperative that PM seeks an agreement to extend the Brexit transition period. The new Covid strain – & the various implications of it – means we face a profoundly serious situation, & it demands our 100% attention. It would be unconscionable to compound it with Brexit”.
France banned freight traffic through Eurotunnel for 48 hours from Sunday night over concerns over the spread of the new Covid-19 variant, leading to the closure of the Dover port, which could result in what industry called a “devastating effect”. It also suspended air traffic with the UK for 48 hours.
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Rod McKenzie of the Road Haulage Association said: “It’s only 48 hours, but the French ban will have a devastating effect on the supply chain. We have seen in recent days the queues on both sides of the channel because of Brexit stockpiling and the Christmas rush and now border closures will mean everything including perishable food supplies will be impacted”.
“We depend on the short straits for our daily supplies. What we are talking about is everything: factory parts, fresh and frozen vegetables, and all the Christmas deliveries,” he added.
Other European countries such as Ireland, Germany, Italy, Belgium and the Netherlands also banned flights to and from the UK, while others were considering doing so. The Eurostar trains to Belgium are not operating, while Eurotunnel suspended access to the Folkestone terminal for traffic and freight heading to Calais.
Johnson is scheduled to hold an COBRA emergency meeting on Monday morning, as the virus-related crisis is likely to be accentuated by uncertainty over trading and other arrangements when the Brexit transition period ends on December 31. Talks in Brussels are yet to reach a conclusion.
The developments were triggered following the imposition of a new lockdown on London and south-east England from Sunday morning, and within hours of Britain’s health secretary Matt Hancock stating that the new variant of the virus is “out of control”.
The Port of Dover – one of the major access points with Europe for trade and road traffic – said in a statement: “Due to border restrictions in France access to the Ferry Terminal at the Port of Dover remains suspended to all accompanied traffic leaving the UK until further notice”.
The developments led to concerns over potential disruption to food supplies, since the UK imports much of its food from Europe under smooth, tariff-free trade arrangements in place for decades during its membership of the European Union – which ends on December 31.
Food and Drink Federation chief executive Ian Wright warned on Sunday: “Tonight’s suspension of accompanied freight traffic from the UK to France has the potential to cause serious disruption to UK Christmas fresh food supplies – and exports of UK food and drink.”
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“Continental truckers will not want to travel here if they have a real fear of getting marooned. The government must very urgently persuade the French government to exempt accompanied freight from its ban,” he added.
Freight industry lobby group Logistics UK appealed for calm from shoppers, stating that it is “maintaining close contact with UK government to ensure that supplies of fresh produce are available throughout Christmas and the New Year.”
The British Retail Consortium also appealed to the government to find a solution, but added that there should be no immediate shortages, since “retailers have stocked up on goods ahead of Christmas which should prevent immediate problems.”