British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he’s trying to re-open trade routes to France “as fast as possible” after a day of cross-Channel political bartering failed to end the chaos at the UK’s busiest port.
France shut down freight traffic from Dover in southeast England at midnight on Sunday because of fear over a faster-spreading mutant strain of Covid-19 that forced the UK government to impose a strict lockdown on London and surrounding areas. Spain and Portugal, meanwhile, joined dozens of countries restricting flights and effectively isolating the UK
Johnson said he’d spoken with French President Emmanuel Macron while Transport Secretary Grant Shapps had been in talks with his counterpart. “We both understand each other’s positions and want to resolve these problems as fast as possible,” Johnson told a press conference Monday.
The government is drawing up contingency plans to test truck drivers for coronavirus before they leave the UK, the Telegraph newspaper reported late Monday, citing an official it didn’t identify.
The search for a solution to keep goods flowing in and out of Britain comes after another taxing weekend for the UK at the end of a torrid year. A spike in coronavirus infections forced Johnson to backtrack on allowing people to spend the festive period together while talks with the European Union on a post-Brexit trade deal missed another deadline.
The upheaval just 10 days before Britain’s post-Brexit transition period is due to end also gave the country a foretaste of what could ensue. Without an accord, the UK will default to trading with the EU on World Trade Organization terms, with the imposition of costly tariffs and quotas, and the threat of more tailbacks at ports as haulers cope with new bureaucracy.
The economy is already buckling again, with London, the most critical dynamo for growth, in lockdown. Bloomberg Economics revised its outlook on Monday to predict another recession at the start of 2021. The pound plunged against the dollar, marking its worst day since the coronavirus hit markets in March.
Outside Dover, trucks lined up on the M20 highway as an emergency plan was triggered with drivers unable to board ferries. The Department for Transport also prepared to open Manston airport in Kent, which is being overhauled to accommodate as many as 4,000 vehicles as part of Britain’s planning for a no-deal outcome from the EU trade talks.
Johnson sought to downplay the crisis, stressing the closure only applies to “a very small percentage” of food entering the UK “The vast majority of food, medicines and other supplies are coming and going as normal,” he said. “The government has been preparing for a long time for exactly this kind of event.”
The UK this month became the first Western country to authorize a coronavirus vaccine. Johnson’s spokesman, Jamie Davies, told reporters that the program would be unaffected because the nation already has the majority of this year’s supply from Pfizer Inc.
Shapps earlier said the border snarl-up only affects about 20% of incoming trade, and that haulers are accustomed to disruption across the Dover-Calais strait because of the weather and strikes.
Nevertheless, the latest challenge is exposing Britain’s trade vulnerabilities just as a 4 1/2-year odyssey to leave the EU moves from political rhetoric to economic reality. Container ports and ferry terminals were already congested because of stockpiling ahead of the Dec. 31 deadline marking a final break from the European single market.
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Business groups facing catastrophic losses urged the government to act soon, with the 18,000-member Logistics UK calling for rapid Covid-19 testing of truckers departing the country as the quickest way of protecting supply chains. Meanwhile, there were long queues at some supermarkets in London, with fresh produce fast disappearing from shelves.
French Transport Minister Jean-Baptiste Djebbari said European nations are working on “a solid health protocol” to be implemented “in the coming hours.”
But a meeting of the EU’s crisis response experts in Brussels on Monday ended without a decision on how to proceed, according to an EU official, who spoke on condition of an anonymity. Some members of the group called for an urgent discussion at political level to resolve the issue.