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Monday, 21 December 2020

France to LIFT lorry ban 'within hours' after closing UK border to stop spread of mutant Covid-19 strain - but will it be enough to stock Britain's supermarket shelves in time for Xmas?

 Britain's borders are set to reopen with the Port of Dover saying inbound lorries are now coming into the UK and the French government pledging to 'resume movement' as soon as possible after a coronavirus travel ban plunged the country into chaos.  

Dover closed to all freight vehicles leaving the UK for 48 hours after France imposed an inbound travel ban from 11pm last night amid the spread of the mutant Covid-19 strain which plunged London and the South East into Tier Four. 

Some 10,000 lorries a day travel through Dover, which accounts for 20 per cent of all goods brought and sold in UK, and there were fears the French shutdown would lead to shortages of fresh food and the coronavirus vaccine.

Thousands of lorries that were meant to travel across the English Channel on Monday were told to stay away from Kent ports and HGVs turning up at Dover this morning were greeted with glowing signs saying 'French borders closed' and were turned away.

However, officials in Dover confirmed inbound freight was still coming in, playing down fears of hauliers staying away to avoid being 'marooned'.

The French government has also now released a statement saying that movement between the country and the UK would resume 'within hours'. 

In a post shared on Twitter by the French Embassy in the UK, French Transport Minister Jean-Baptiste Djebbari said: 'In the next few hours, at European level, we're going to establish a solid health protocol to ensure that movement from the UK can resume.


'Our priority: to protect our nationals and our fellow citizens.'

The travel ban led to people and goods from the UK being blocked from entering France via air, sea or the Channel Tunnel with fresh food left to rot on roads and in traffic queues. 

It also led to concerns that the chaos could disrupt supplies of the Pfizer/BioNTech coronavirus vaccine to the UK which is made in Belgium – with military aircraft set to airlift supplies if the ban lasts for longer than 48 hours. 

The ban added to several pre-existing issues already gripping the ports, including stockpiling fears over a No-Deal Brexit, increased demand for goods over Christmas and a lack of shipping containers amid the coronavirus pandemic.  

It also triggered panic-buying, with shoppers queueing at supermarkets from 5.50am this morning to stock up on essentials following the news. Despite the travel ban later being lifted, panic-buying continued up to lunchtime. 

Sainsbury's has warned of several popular items being unavailable over the coming days: '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. We hope the UK and French governments can come to a mutually agreeable solution that prioritises the immediate passage of produce and any other food at the ports.'

Shellfish producers in Scotland also said they had tonnes of perishable products stranded on roads as the French border was closed. 

Despite the chaos, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps insisted people 'wouldn't notice' any supermarket shortages: 'The absolute key is to get this resolved as soon as possible. I'll be speaking again to my opposite number Jean-Baptiste (Djebbari) later this morning.

'There's a meeting taking place actually right now in Europe about it, in order to co-ordinate approaches. It's not really in anybody's particular interest to not have hauliers going across, not least because they are mostly European hauliers and the goods are mostly theirs, so they will not want them perishing any more than we would want the border closed.'  

He also attempted to calm fears about the wider impact of the French decision: 'The supply chain is pretty robust in as much as you get variations in supply all the time. For the most part, people won't notice it.' 

Mr Johnson faced demands to recall Parliament to address the crisis, which follows the introduction of a new Tier 4 level of lockdown on London and large parts of south-east England. 

He will hold talks with Ministers today as he chairs the Government's Cobra civil contingencies committee amid warnings of 'significant disruption' around the Channel ports in Kent. 

Kent Police implemented Operation Stack to ease congestion, while the Department for Transport said the disused Manston Airport was also being prepared as another contingency measure against the anticipated level of disruption, with plans to store 4,000 stranded HGVs there.

Countries including France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium, Poland, Austria, Denmark, Ireland, and Bulgaria announced restrictions on UK travel following the outbreak of the new strain across South East England.  

India announced this morning that all flights from Britain would be suspended until December 31 and Hong Kong is also due to ban all flights from midnight. Asian nations including Japan and South Korea said they were closely monitoring the new strain.

Australia said on Monday it had detected cases of the new virulent coronavirus strain. Two travellers from the UK to Australia's New South Wales state were found carrying the mutated variant of the virus.

French health minister Olivier Veran said on Monday that it was possible the news strain was already circulating in France, although recent tests had not detected it in the country.

'It is entirely possible that the virus is circulating in France,' Veran said, after his country introduced the ban on British lorries. 

Among those at the Port of Dover are 80 workers who had travelled down from the West Midlands on a coach to go home for Christmas. They are now stuck for at least next two days and have nowhere to stay, with all hotels closed.  

It comes as:  

  • The Food and Drink Federation warned of 'serious disruption to UK Christmas fresh food supplies and exports'
  • Italy said the mutant strain had been detected in a traveller who recently returned to the country from the UK
  • The British Retail Consortium warned closure of France to UK traffic would create 'difficulties' for UK trade
  • Nicola Sturgeon said it was 'imperative' the UK Government sought an extension to Brexit transition period
  • Ireland has imposed a 48-hour ban on flights from Britain while ferries would be restricted to freight only
  • Heathrow Airport descended into chaos as hundreds of passengers scrambled onto the last flight to Dublin
  • Health Secretary Matt Hancock admitted the new Tier 4 restrictions may have to remain in place for months
  • The UK reported a further 35,928 cases yesterday as the mutant strain caused a 94.8% rise in infections. 
Lorries parked on the M20 near Folkestone, Kent, as part of Operation Stack after the Port of Dover was closed and access to the Eurotunnel terminal suspended following the French government's announcement that it will not accept any passengers arriving from the UK for the next 48 hours

Lorries parked on the M20 near Folkestone, Kent, as part of Operation Stack after the Port of Dover was closed and access to the Eurotunnel terminal suspended following the French government's announcement that it will not accept any passengers arriving from the UK for the next 48 hours 

Security officers and police at a closed entrance of the Port of Dover after France announced the travel ban last night

Security officers and police at a closed entrance of the Port of Dover after France announced the travel ban last night

Queues of lorries on the M20 in Kent after France shut its borders from the UK following the discovery of the new super covid mutant strain

Queues of lorries on the M20 in Kent after France shut its borders from the UK following the discovery of the new super covid mutant strain

Lorries from Operation Stack under police escort to Kent airport
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Transport Secretary Grant Shaps insisted that vaccines not be affected by the travel ban, telling Sky News today: 'Most vaccine doesn't come via what is called 'Ro-Ro', roll-on, roll-off, which is what we are talking about here.

'In other words, it's not usually accompanied by a driver, by a haulier. It comes on those containers. To put this into context, there are about 6,000 vehicles we would expect, just under in Dover today, probably 4,000 would have gone across from Dover, just under about 2,000 on the Eurotunnel.

'But there is probably something like 32,000 units that would have been the daily total, so the vast majority - including virtually all the vaccine - actually comes via container and there are good supplies in the meantime. So this won't have an impact on the vaccination programme.'

 Mr Shapps admitted that France's ban on freight hauliers was 'slightly surprising', adding: 'Immediately as soon as the French said, perhaps slightly surprisingly that they would stop hauliers, rather than just passengers, we were in touch with a group known as the Kent Resilience Forum. They are well used to planning for exactly these kind of circumstances

'We will be opening up Manston as a lorry park today and providing welfare for some of those drivers as well, while also being in very close contact with the French over what will happen next.

'The Kent Dover-to-Calais Eurotunnel, what we call the short straits, is probably about 20% of goods going to and from, in and out of the country.

'But it's not the mainstay. Most goods actually come in and out by unaccompanied containers and those will continue to flow.'

Asked about what the shortages could be, Mr Shapps said: 'Obviously we don't want these links to be closed for too long, but it's not unusual for them to be closed and disrupted.

'In the short term it's not a specific problem. But of course the key is to get it resolved.'

The chief executive of the Road Haulage Association (RHA), Richard Burnett, said the disruption could cause problems with 'fresh food supply' in the run-up to Christmas.

He told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: 'With it being so close to Christmas we're looking at 48 hours at this point in time in terms of the restrictions, we're likely to see Operation Stack building in terms of numbers of vehicles on the UK side and that might be a deterrent for EU hauliers to want to come so close to Christmas and end up being stranded here, that's part of the challenge that we're facing today.' 

Food and Drink Federation chief executive Ian Wright said last night: '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. 

'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 told BBC Breakfast this morning: 'The problem is the return journey of drivers coming to the UK. If they cannot be guaranteed either that they will get out of the UK because of the congestion or that they will be able to secure a return journey full of whatever product it is, that's going to make it much more unlikely for them to come in the first place.

'And, over time, because the transport system requires these round trips, that will reduce the ability of us to bring food into the country after Christmas if that takes effect.


'We need a pragmatic solution that gets drivers across the border and into the UK by whatever route in exactly the same way we had throughout the lockdown in March and in the earlier part of the year.'

Road Haulage Association (RHA) boss Richard Burnett, said the 'fresh food supply where it's short shelf life and there will be product on its way now, that's where the challenge kind of comes from' after France banned lorries carrying freight from the UK amid fears over the new mutant coronavirus strain.

He told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: 'The concern that we do have though is that with it being so close to Christmas we're looking at 48 hours at this point in time in terms of the restrictions, we're likely to see Operation Stack building in terms of numbers of vehicles on the UK side and that might be a deterrent for EU hauliers to want to come so close to Christmas and end up being stranded here, that's part of the challenge that we're facing today.

'I think what Government are looking at, at this point in time, is actually bringing forward their contingency plans that they'd got laid out for the New Year in terms of (post-Brexit) transition and potentially if we start to see a significant number of vehicles parked on the M20 then we may well actually open up some of the truck parks in Kent, possibly Manston in order to take high levels of vehicles.

'I did have a conversation with Grant Shapps (Transport Secretary) last night and he has assured me that he's working hard with his French counterparts to ensure this issue is resolved as quickly as possible.'

The leader of Kent County Council said a disused airport could be brought in to cope with queues of lorries coming into the county.

Speaking on Times Radio, Roger Gough said: 'I think the Government has done what is essential, which is to seek to discourage vehicles from coming to Kent.

'That was in fact something that we've been pushing on very hard in relation to the end of transition.

'We had plans pretty well set up for coping with the 7,000 vehicles, which was what the Government called its reasonable worst-case scenario.

'What we were concerned about was what might happen if you got to that point and the vehicles kept coming.

'The Department for Transport, I understand, is due to bring in the use of Manston Airport, the old airport site, which would be the next stage.

'I think that's where we'll be heading next in terms of managing the issue, in terms of lorries.'

The general manager of trade group Logistics UK, formerly the Freight Transport Association, has urged the public not to panic-buy following France's freight lorry ban.

Alex Veitch said the Government needs to work with EU partners to come up with a pragmatic solution to give the French and other authorities confidence that drivers are Covid-free.

Lorries queue during operation stack on the M20 towards Dover after France introduced the new travel ban on British hauliers

Lorries queue during operation stack on the M20 towards Dover after France introduced the new travel ban on British hauliers

Sedat from Turkey eats a traditional breakfast out of his lorry as he waits in a service station on the M20 on December 21 amid the port chaos

Sedat from Turkey eats a traditional breakfast out of his lorry as he waits in a service station on the M20 on December 21 amid the port chaos

Claudio from Italy installs a satellite dish on the side of his cab to watch TV as he waits for travel restrictions to be lifted

Claudio from Italy installs a satellite dish on the side of his cab to watch TV as he waits for travel restrictions to be lifted

80 workers who have travelled down from the West Midlands to go home for Christmas are stuck on a coach at Dover today

80 workers who have travelled down from the West Midlands to go home for Christmas are stuck on a coach at Dover today

Speaking to BBC Breakfast, he said: 'This is why we are saying at the current time, please, there is no need to panic-buy, there are goods available in the shops, retailers are doing everything they can.

'But at the same time it is serious and we do need a resolution as quickly as possible.'

Italian authorities announced the mutant strain had been detected in a traveller who recently returned to the country from the UK.

With France suspending all traffic from the UK for 48 hours, it raised fears that trade flows could be severely disrupted while passengers across Europe could be left stranded in the final run-up to Christmas.

A No 10 spokesman said: 'The Prime Minister will chair a Cobra meeting tomorrow to discuss the situation regarding international travel, in particular the steady flow of freight into and out of the UK.

'Further meetings are happening this evening and tomorrow morning to ensure robust plans are in place.'

This shopper was seen with a very full trolley just days before Christmas as people rushed to the shops for festive supplies

This shopper was seen with a very full trolley just days before Christmas as people rushed to the shops for festive supplies

Stocks of loo roll were in short supply this morning, echoing scenes from earlier in the pandemic when panic buyers stripped the shelves of toilet tissue

Stocks of loo roll were in short supply this morning, echoing scenes from earlier in the pandemic when panic buyers stripped the shelves of toilet tissue

Washing powers and products also appeared to be popular products with shoppers who flocked to the shops this morning

Washing powers and products also appeared to be popular products with shoppers who flocked to the shops this morning

Long lines started forming outside of this Waitrose superstore in Henleaze near Brisol this morning as people tried to stock up on festive supplies

Long lines started forming outside of this Waitrose superstore in Henleaze near Brisol this morning as people tried to stock up on festive supplies 

People braved the rain to wait in line and do their shopping earlier than normal before Christmas Day at the Henleaze Waitrose store

People braved the rain to wait in line and do their shopping earlier than normal before Christmas Day at the Henleaze Waitrose store

Staple items like bread were in short supply at this Iceland supermarket in north London this morning

Staple items like bread were in short supply at this Iceland supermarket in north London this morning


Transport Secretary Grant Shapps urged people including hauliers to stay away from the area around the Channel ports.

'We expect significant disruption in the area. My department is urgently working with Highways England and Kent Council on contingency measures to minimise traffic disruption in the area,' he said.

The British Retail Consortium (BRC) warned the closure of France to UK traffic would create 'difficulties' for UK imports and exports 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 on December 31.

'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.

'This is a key supply route for fresh produce at this time of year.

'We urge the UK Government and the EU to find a pragmatic solution to this as soon as possible, to prevent disruption for consumers.

'Retailers have stocked up on goods ahead of Christmas which should prevent immediate problems.

'However, any prolonged closure of the French border would be a problem as the UK enters the final weeks before the transition ends on December 31.'

The British Retail Consortium previously urged shoppers not to 'clear out' the shelves amid concerns over a no deal Brexit. 

Earlier this month they said retailers are 'increasing the stock of tins, toilet rolls and other longer life products so there will be sufficient supply of essential products'.

They hopes to avoid a repeat of scenes seen earlier in the pandemic, when panic buying led to empty supermarket shelves and restrictions on key items. 

Supermarkets previously limited the sale of key items such as toilet roll, and staples such as rice, flour and pasta. 

But the French travel ban will lead to shortages, the industry experts admitted. 

Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said it was 'imperative' the UK Government sought an extension to the Brexit transition period.

'The new Covid strain - and the various implications of it - means we face a profoundly serious situation, and it demands our 100 per cent attention,' she said. 'It would be unconscionable to compound it with Brexit.'

Germany, which holds the rotating EU presidency, announced it was calling emergency talks on Monday to co-ordinate the response of the bloc's 27 member states.

It came after the Irish government said it was imposing a 48-hour ban on flights from Britain while ferries would be restricted to freight only.

M20 welcomes Operation Stack as French border closes for 48 hours
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Passengers at London St Pancras train station queue to board Eurostar trains to Paris last night before the border was closed

Passengers at London St Pancras train station queue to board Eurostar trains to Paris last night before the border was closed

Staff board the last scheduled Eurostar from London to Paris ahead of travel restrictions imposed by the French last night

Staff board the last scheduled Eurostar from London to Paris ahead of travel restrictions imposed by the French last night

Passengers at London's Heathrow Airport attempted to make the last flight to Dublin last night before the Covid-19 travel ban

Passengers at London's Heathrow Airport attempted to make the last flight to Dublin last night before the Covid-19 travel ban

Scenes at Heathrow Airport after overbooked Dublin flight
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The Netherlands said it will stop flights from the UK at least until the end of the year while Belgium has imposed a 24-hour ban on flights and rail links while it assesses the situation.

Italy is prohibiting entry to the country by anyone who has been in the UK in the last 14 days and flights are banned until January 6 while Austria, the Czech Republic, El Salvador, Turkey and Canada also imposed new restrictions.

Countries reacted after Mr Johnson announced on Saturday that the new variant was up to 70 per cent more transmissible than the original strain as he put London and parts of the South East and East of England into a two-week Christmas lockdown, with nearly 18 million people in a new Tier 4.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock admitted the new variant coronavirus was 'out of control' and said the new restrictions may have to remain in place for months.

Concerns about the rapid spread of the disease were underlined with the publication of the latest official figures showing there had been a further 35,928 lab-confirmed cases of coronavirus in the UK as of 9am on Sunday.

Millions of people have been forced to tear up their festive plans, with Mr Johnson effectively cancelling Christmas for those in Tier 4.

In the rest of England, Christmas easing is severely curtailed, with households allowed to gather for just one day - Christmas Day itself - rather than the five days previously planned, while Scotland and Wales are also restricting Christmas 'bubbles' to a single day. 

And at an emergency meeting late on Sunday night, the Northern Ireland Executive agreed to reduce the five day Christmas bubbling arrangements to just one day.


Ministers also debated a temporary ban on travel from Great Britain to Northern Ireland because of the new Covid variant, with further discussions expected on Monday.

Dr Yvonne Doyle, medical director at Public Health England, said: 'This sharp and sudden increase is of serious concern.'

She said most of the new cases were concentrated in London and the South East - where the new strain is thought to have originated - although it was too soon to say if they were linked to it.

Last night the Department for Transport said Manston Airport was being prepared to to accommodate 'up to 4000 lorries' as a measure to ease congestion in Kent in the wake of the France travel ban and warned hauliers to avoid travel to Kent ports 'until further notice'.

Kent Police implemented Operation Stack, when parts of the M20 are set aside to queue lorries headed for the Continent. 

It comes after Transport Secretary Grant Shapps urged hauliers to avoid travelling to Kent ports as the closure of the France-UK border is expected to trigger 'significant disruption'. 

The French Government joined a number of other European nations in banning inbound flights from the UK in a bid to prevent the spread of a coronavirus mutation sweeping through London and the south east of England.

Mr Shapps tweeted last night: 'Following the French Government's announcement it will not accept any passengers arriving from the UK for the next 48hrs, we're asking the public & particularly hauliers not to travel to Kent ports or other routes to France.

'We expect significant disruption in the area. My department is urgently working with Highways England and Kent Council on contingency measures to minimise traffic disruption in the area. We will share more details on these shortly.'

Earlier, French transport minister Jean-Baptiste Djebbari confirmed the country was suspending all traffic from the UK from midnight for at least 48 hours.

The Port of Dover tweeted on Sunday night that its ferry terminal was 'closed to all accompanied traffic leaving the UK until further notice due to border restrictions in France'.

On its website it said: 'Both accompanied freight and passenger customers are asked not to travel to the Port. We understand that the restrictions will be in place for 48 hours from midnight (CET).

'We apologise for the inconvenience and will provide an update as soon as possible.'

It added: 'Port of Dover Cargo Terminal, Marina and other areas of the Port remain open.'

Meanwhile, Eurotunnel tweeted that its last shuttle service departing for France would leave at 9.34pm yesterday, with access to its UK site prohibited from 10pm.

Rod McKenzie, from the Road Haulage Association, told Sky News that 10,000 lorries a day crossed between Dover and Calais in France.

He added: 'Brexit stockpiling is one thing, the Christmas rush is another thing, but the absolute hammer blow now is to close the borders for 48 hours.

'That is a serious disruption of the all important supply chain.'

Logistics UK, formerly the Freight Transport Association, which is based in Tunbridge Wells, tweeted: 'Logistics UK is aware of news that accompanied freight to France is being not allowed for 48 hours; we are concerned about the welfare of drivers and we are urgently seeking more information for our members.' 

Tory Kent MP Sir Roger Gale urged No 10 and Michael Gove, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, to 'get a grip' on the developing situation with the Britain-France border.

He tweeted: 'Cross Channel travel chaos. Don't try to blame the Transport Department. Time for Number Ten and 'CDL' to get a grip.'

Cold Chain Federation chief executive Shane Brennan said: 'Whilst we face no shortages now, we do need urgent agreements between the UK and EU Governments to find a way to safely allow freight movements to continue. This has been possible at every other stage through the pandemic. An extended period of stopped movement now will cause significant problems for supply chains in January.'

The Belgian government also announced its borders with the UK will close at midnight on Sunday.

The Eurostar rail service said on its website yesterday evening that due to the French and Belgian border closures it was unable to run any trains from London to Paris, Brussels, Lille or Amsterdam on Monday or Tuesday.

Services from Amsterdam, Brussels and Lille to London would also not run on these days, but trains from Paris to London continue to operate. 


The rail company said it planned to resume all services to and from the UK on Wednesday and was awaiting further details from relevant governments on how travel restrictions will be enforced.

It comes after queues at Dover reached 20 miles last week with long traffic jams in Calais as thousands of lorries - many full of Christmas gifts and food - tried to cross the Channel amid chaos at Britain's container ports.

Extraordinary photographs taken from above the M20 in Kent last Friday showed how vehicles were bumper-to-bumper amid claims businesses are stockpiling in case of a No Deal Brexit at the end of the month. 

And across the water in France, in Calais trucks lined dual carriageways for miles as they tried to get a ferry to Dover or the Channel Tunnel to Folkestone ahead of the busiest shopping week of the year. 

Retailers say items they ordered in August for Christmas have still not arrived in Britain because of shipping chaos caused by Covid-19 in China and problems unloading in the UK seeing containers dumped in Zeebrugge, Belgium.

UK firms are haemorrhaging £1million or more because shipments have been delayed and quadrupled in price with the cost of moving a container from Qingdao, China, to the UK now at £7,500 per load - up from £2,000.

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