London (AFP) – Stranded truck drivers heading to Europe on Tuesday hoped to get the green light out of Britain soon, after some of the country’s most dramatic travel restrictions were imposed on the country after discovering a more contagious strain than the coronavirus.
More than 1,500 trucks have veered along a major highway in southeast England near the country’s vital canal ports or congested at an abandoned airport, illustrating the extent of Britain’s isolation after countries from Canada to India banned flights from the UK and France to their trucks. For 48 hours starting Sunday night.
For the island nation that relies heavily on its trade ties with France, this is likely to be extremely dangerous – and has sparked fears of food shortages if restrictions are not lifted by Wednesday.
Home Secretary Priti Patel told BBC radio that the British government was “constantly talking” to France to get freight moving again. France has said it wants to lift the ban as soon as possible and is looking for ways to test drivers upon arrival.
“It is in our interest, both countries ensure that we have a flow, and of course there are European transporters now who want to go home,” she said.
While the French embargo does not prevent trucks from entering Britain, many vehicles transporting goods from the country to the continent return loaded with goods. The fear is that it will decline – reducing supplies to Britain at a time of year when the UK produces very little of its food and is highly dependent on products brought in from Europe by truck.
Also, some drivers or employers may decide not to enter the UK for fear that they will not be able to return home.
The restrictions were creating a sense of isolation in Britain similar to what the residents of Hubei Province in China experienced at the start of the year or those of northern Italy a few months later.
With around 10,000 trucks passing through Dover every day, which is about 20% of the country’s trade in goods, retailers are becoming increasingly anxious if there is no solution soon.
Andrew Obie, director of food and sustainability at the British Retail Consortium, has warned of potential shortages of food items such as lettuce, vegetables and fresh fruits after Christmas if the border is not “running too freely” from Wednesday.
The problem, he explained, was that the empty trucks in England could not receive new shipments to Britain.
He said: “They need to go back to places like Spain to pick up the next shipment of berries and strawberries, and they have to come back within the next day or so, otherwise we will see disruption.”
Over the weekend, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson imposed strict lockdowns in London and surrounding areas amid mounting concerns about a new alternative to the virus., Which early evidence suggests may be 70% more transmissible.
As a result, Johnson rescinded a planned relaxation of rules over the Christmas period for millions of people and banned domestic mixing of families. It will only allow essential travel.
Amid questions about whether the vaccines now rolling out would work against the new strain, the CEO of BioNTech – the German drug company behind one of those shots – said he was confident they would be effective.But more studies are needed to be completely sure.
Ugur Shaheen said on Tuesday: “We do not know at the moment if our vaccine is also able to provide protection against this new variant,” but since the proteins in the variant are 99% the same as the dominant strains, BioNTech has “scientific confidence” in the vaccine.
There are growing concerns that the entire UK will be placed on a national lockdown after Christmas as new infections increase, including in Wales where 90 British Army soldiers will be recruited to lead vehicles starting Wednesday to support health teams responding to emergency calls.
The UK government’s chief scientific adviser, Patrick Vallance, warned Monday that measures “may need to be increased in some places, at the appropriate time, not reduced.” For many, this was a symbol of yet another national lockdown.
While evaluating the new alternative, countries have been trying to limit contact with Britain, although evidence of stress has already been found elsewhere.
In Switzerland, for example, authorities are trying to track down an estimated 10,000 people who have arrived by plane from Britain since December 14 – and have ordered them to be quarantined for 10 days.
Switzerland was one of 40 individual countries that banned flights from the United Kingdom due to concerns about the new alternative.
The quarantine order is likely to affect the thousands of Britons who may already have headed to Swiss ski resorts. Unlike many of its neighbors, Switzerland has left most of its slopes open, attracting enthusiasts from all over Europe.
The virus is blamed for 1.7 million deaths worldwide, including about 68,000 in Britain, the second-highest death toll in Europe after 69,000 in Italy.
The chaos on the borders comes at a time of great uncertainty for Britain, less than two weeks before it completes its exit from the European Union and free itself from the rules of the Union. Talks over the post-Brexit trade relationship have reached a dead end.
Associated Press writer Frank Jordanes in Berlin contributed to this report.
Follow AP coverage of the virus outbreak at https://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak And https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak.