LONDON – British authorities put even more areas in England under the strictest restrictions on Wednesday as officials struggled to curb the spread of a coronavirus variant that is potentially more contagious than those that have already sparked chaos around the world.
The French government lifted a 48-hour blockade of the British border aimed at preventing the new variant from spreading. But efforts on Wednesday to get traffic moving fell into chaos as officials struggled to carry out the tests needed by thousands of drivers stuck in English ports to leave the country.
On Wednesday night, traffic began to move again, according to the British Broadcasting Corporation. But more than 5,000 European-bound trucks are still stuck near Dover harbor across the English Channel from France. Frustrated drivers smoked over the prospect of a fourth night sleeping in their vehicles. A carrier said its drivers had to throw away more than 100,000 pounds of spoiled food.
With uncertainty swirling around the looming deadline of December 31 for a post-Brexit trade deal, a virus spread at an astonishing rate, exhausted healthcare professionals struggling with an influx of patients, and millions of people confined themselves to their homes while holiday lights flashed up in deserted streets, the Christmas season was becoming uniquely brutal.
In addition, the UK is dependent on imports of fresh fruit and vegetables, especially in winter. Supermarkets have tried to reassure customers that there is enough food, but they warned that some fresh goods could run out later in the week if the delays continued.
Tesco, one of the UK’s largest grocery chains, emailed customers on Tuesday, saying they had “good availability” of goods imported from France but that they had imposed temporary purchase limits on some goods, including eggs and toilet paper.
The most pressing concerns, British officials said, were to slow down the rapid spread of the virus, which they attributed to the effectiveness of the new variant. The UK reported 39,237 cases on Wednesday, a 56 percent increase from a week ago, according to a The New York Times database.
The number of people in the hospital – almost 19,000 – is close to where it was at the peak of the outbreak in the spring. And 744 deaths were reported Wednesday.
“Given the rise of infections, rising hospitalizations and the growing number of people dying from coronavirus, it is important that we act,” said Matt Hancock, the UK Health Secretary.
Areas in the south and east of England – including Cambridgeshire, Norfolk, Oxfordshire, Suffolk and Sussex – are poised to move to the highest level of restrictions from Saturday, joining London and much of south-east England. The rules require people to stay home except for urgent travel, medical appointments and outdoor exercise, and Mr. Hancock said restricting human contact was the only way to protect people.
British officials also expressed concern over the spread of another virus variant identified in South Africa. Sir. Hancock said it was even more easily transmitted than the mutation that got lockdowns in England.
Researchers are currently studying both of the newly discovered variants. While early indications suggest that they are both more transmissible, more laboratory tests are needed to gain a better understanding of the dangers they pose.
Sir. Hancock said British authorities had discovered two cases of the South African variant. In both cases, the infected people had been in contact with people who had traveled to the UK from South Africa in recent weeks.
Those infected with the new variant and their close contacts will be quarantined, and Mr Hancock said travel from South Africa would be limited. At least five other countries have introduced similar restrictions for travelers from South Africa.
More than 50 governments have excluded travelers from Britain since Saturday, when Prime Minister Boris Johnson first sounded the alarm over the spread that was spreading in England, introducing the new lockdown.
French officials also blocked shipping for 48 hours, saying the border closure was necessary to establish test protocols given the variant alarm.
The British Army was mobilized to help the National Health Service, the country’s healthcare system, set up facilities to administer rapid coronavirus tests to drivers and went truck to truck to perform tests.
But it went slowly.
On Wednesday, when traffic was largely quiet, drivers who had already spent days in their rigs became frustrated and confused about how to take a test.
As tensions boiled over, police officers collided with angry drivers desperate to get home for Christmas. TV footage showed scenes with pushed and pushed. Kent police, which include the port of Dover, said at least one arrest had been made.
There was concern that the mess on Wednesday could be a prelude to the coming logistical nightmare, especially if trade talks between Britain and the EU are concluded without an agreement.
Tom Binks, CEO of Peter Green Chilled, a transportation company with chilled and frozen food, said his drivers have had to throw away more than 100,000 pounds of lamb, poultry, cheese and yogurt since Monday. But even before the border was closed this week, he said, his drivers had already waited as long as six hours in Dover harbor this month.
“The port is basically overwhelmed,” said Mr. Binks and added that it lacked the infrastructure to handle the increased shipping volumes as the pandemic and Brexit offset in panic purchases. “And then the decision from the French on top of it. It’s just incredible. ”
He said delivery volumes have been 70 percent higher this month than other months due to increased orders to stockpile Christmas and Covid-19 and Brexit. In recent years, delivery volumes in December have increased by 30 percent compared to the rest of the year, he said.
Authorities warned that it could take days to clear the more than 5,000 trucks to Europe.
“I think it will take a few days to work our way through,” Robert Jenrick, a government minister, told Sky News on Wednesday. He also said that all drivers who tested positive would be offered a more accurate PCR test, which takes longer to process. If it was also positive, they would be offered hotel stays to isolate for 10 days.
Rod McKenzie, director of policy at the Road Haulage Association, which represents the UK road transport industry, said likely 8,000 to 10,000 trucks were waiting to cross the border.
“It’s a huge task,” he told Sky News.
Some drivers have already spent three nights sleeping in their trucks with limited access to food and restrooms and then on a fourth Wednesday. Trucks transporting goods to the UK from continental Europe were allowed to pass through ports this week, but the number dropped for fear that drivers would get stuck when crossing into the UK.
Mr. Binks, chief executive of the carrier, said he was most concerned about what would happen after 31 December, when Britain is no longer part of the European Union’s internal market and customs union.
“We have maybe 15 trucks driving out next week and I do not know if I should send them or not,” he said. Food shortages and further disruptions in supplies are inevitable, he said.
Constant Méheut contributed reporting from Paris.