France appears set to end a ban on hauliers crossing the Channel which was imposed due to fears about the spread of the new coronavirus strain.
Transport minister Jean-Baptiste Djebbari said a protocol would be adopted at a European Union-wide level “to ensure that movement from the UK can resume”.
The UK has been cut off from large parts of Europe – and some other areas of the world – as authorities imposed bans on passengers because of concern about the more infectious mutant coronavirus.
The most dramatic intervention came from France, which put in place a ban on hauliers crossing the English Channel with their cargo.
Mr 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.”
Boris Johnson will chair a meeting of the Cobra emergency committee to discuss the situation on Monday afternoon.
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said emergency measures were being put in place to cope with a backlog of lorries heading for the Channel ports.
#COVID19: "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," - French Minister Delegate for Transport: https://t.co/Jz4fbKlfq1— French Embassy UK (@FranceintheUK) December 21, 2020
But he sought to play down the potential impact, stressing that container freight was not hit by the ban on people crossing the border.
The markets tumbled in response to the escalating coronavirus crisis and the looming prospect of a no-deal Brexit at the end of the transition period on December 31.
More than £33 billion was wiped off the FTSE 100 within minutes of opening, as the index dropped more than 2%, although it later recovered to a fall of around 1.4%.
The Transport Secretary said hauliers were “quite used to anticipating disruption”, adding there were variations in supply “all the time”.
Mr Shapps said he was talking to French counterpart Mr Djebbari and told Sky News: “The absolute key is to get this resolved as soon as possible.”
He confirmed that the disused Manston Airport in Kent would be used as a lorry park, while Operation Stack – the contingency measures used to queue on the M20 whenever there is disruption at the channel – was already in place.
The Transport Secretary dismissed concerns about the impact of the travel ban on supplies of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, which is manufactured in Belgium, because container freight was unaffected.
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.”
Sainsbury’s warned that if the disruption continued there could be “gaps over the coming days” in the supply of lettuce, some salad leaves, cauliflowers, broccoli and citrus fruit – all of which are imported from the continent at this time of year.
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.
Concerns about the spread of the new variant also led to the dramatic scaling back of Christmas plans, with mixing banned in Tier 4 and the three-household provision being allowed for just Christmas Day itself in the rest of England.
Conservative former minister Sir Desmond Swayne questioned the timing of the Government’s announcements.
“They’ve been looking at it since September, and how convenient when Parliament went into recess on Thursday, suddenly they were then able to produce this revelation,” he told the Today programe.
“Let’s see the evidence then, let’s have Parliament back and show us and convince us – come clean.”
Among the authorities imposing travel restrictions on passengers from the UK are: France, Ireland, the Netherlands, Belgium, Italy, Austria, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Denmark, El Salvador, Turkey, Canada and Hong Kong.
They reacted after Mr Johnson announced that the new variant was up to 70% more transmissible than the original strain, while Health Secretary Matt Hancock admitted it was “out of control” and the Tier 4 lockdown 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.
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, following the rest of the UK.
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.