Virus-linked isolation of the UK eases, but the backlog persists

DOVER, England (AP) – Gridlock in an English port kept thousands of truckers and travelers stranded on Wednesday despite an agreement with France to lift a two-day blockade imposed due to a new variant of coronavirus that had isolated Britain and raised fears of food shortages.

While some goods and passengers began to arrive on the French shores in the morning, many were still struggling to get through. With officials warning that the backlog would take several days to clear, truck drivers frustrated with police in the port of Dover. Some have suggested that the chaos was a precursor to what Britain might face if it did not come to a trade agreement with the EU before leaving the economic embrace of the bloc on 31 December.

“Looking around, it doesn’t really look like much progress is being made here,” said Ben Richtzenhaim, a financial services worker who drove overnight from Scotland hoping to get home to Germany by car. “People are still not moving out of the way, nor are the authorities doing anything. So it’s a real stalemate. ”

Nations around the world began blocking people from Britain over the weekend after Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced that researchers said a new version of the virus, which was whipping around London and England’s south-east, might be more contagious. The executive order added concerns at a time when Europe has been swollen by soaring new viral infections and deaths.

On Wednesday, British Health Secretary Matt Hancock said another new variant – from South Africa – has emerged in the UK and announced restrictions on travel from the African country.

Some European countries eased their travel limits for Britain on Wednesday, though many remain in place. Yet it was France’s ban on freight transport that caused the most alarm and led to a sense of intense isolation on the island nation, as Britain is heavily dependent on its commercial cross-channel connections to the continent for food at this time of year, especially fresh fruit and vegetables.

Fear of food shortages added to an already clumsy start to Christmas in the UK, where authorities have withdrawn or canceled plans to ease restrictions on holidays as daily viral infections rise and many hospitals approach capacity.

Britain reported a further 744 deaths and a record 39,237 confirmed cases on Wednesday, and the health secretary said millions of people in England would be subject to the country’s strictest restrictions from 26 December. The rules, which close all non-essential stores and prohibit households from interfering indoors, already cover London and the surrounding areas.

Under an agreement to lift France’s ban, anyone arriving from the UK must have a virus test capable of detecting the new variant, and soldiers and contact trackers were sent to the Port of Dover to administer the tests. But drivers said traffic chaos in the area delayed it.

Railway operator Eurotunnel said some trains carrying freight and car passengers were allowed to cross to the continent under the English Channel on Wednesday. The director of the French port of Calais-Boulogne, Jean-Marc Puissesseau, said two vans had so far arrived by ferry, while some truck drivers were simply loading their goods directly onto ferries so a colleague could pick it up on the French side.

He said no freight cars have made the journey yet due to test problems and he did not expect any before nightfall. The port of Calais usually brings up to 4,000 trucks a day.

British Social Secretary Robert Jenrick said it would take “a few days” to test all the drivers currently in Kent County.

By late Wednesday afternoon, it was estimated that more than 6,000 trucks were trying to cross the canal, with more than half – about 3,750 – curling up at Kent’s disused Manston Airport waiting for their queue to leave. Test facilities were in place at the airport.

The chaos came when many Britons were already relying on travel and trade-related disruptions if Britain and the EU could not agree on a trade agreement after Brexit when the country leaves the EU’s duty-free single market and customs union by the end of the year.

French authorities have insisted this week’s blockade was based on scientific concerns and not politics, but some noted it may have given a glimpse of what Britain can expect next year.

“We thought we were okay, preparing for December 31 (and Brexit), and then we’re already in chaos,” Puissesseau, the French port director, told the Associated Press. The slowdown could be worse when Brexit kicks in and French authorities will have to check customs documents as well as virus tests, he warned.

Clement Beaune, France’s Minister for European Affairs, told BFM TV during a discussion on the Brexit talks that “when it comes to trade,” the British side has much more dependence on Europe than the other way around. “

The Netherlands, Belgium and Bulgaria eased travel restrictions on the UK on Wednesday, but dozens of other countries continue to prevent travelers. Japan announced that it would reintroduce an entry ban for most newcomers from the country.

Eurostar passenger train services also resumed from the UK to the continent, but only for citizens of Europe’s borderless zone, UK citizens with EU residence and those with a special reason to come temporarily, such as truckers.

Liza Peirrusio, an Italian resident of London, traveled to Paris on Wednesday to spend the holidays with her boyfriend.

“I have never been so happy to be a European citizen,” she said as she emerged from the first Eurostar to arrive since the weekend.


Hui reported from London and Charlton from Paris. Associated Press journalists Jeff Schaeffer in Calais, France, Nicolas Garriga in Paris, Jason Parkinson in Dover, England, Pan Pylas in London and Lorne Cook in Brussels contributed.


An earlier version of this story addressed the first name of the French port director to Jean-Marc, not Jean-March.


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