More areas of England could be put into Tier 4 from Boxing Day while a mass testing programme was due to get under way to alleviate congestion at the border between France and the UK.
Reports suggested ministers would meet on Wednesday to decide whether more parts of the country would be put under the toughest restrictions amid fears over the spread of a new mutant strain of coronavirus.
It came as France lifted its travel ban and allowed journeys from the UK to resume, but said those seeking to travel must have a negative coronavirus test result.
The Daily Telegraph reported local leaders and health officials in Birmingham met on Tuesday night to discuss the possibility of the city being moved into Tier 4, while areas in lower tiers could be moved up to Tier 3.
Genomic researchers have found the new variant, which is said to be 70% more infectious than previous strains, has already spread around the UK, with cases identified in Wales and Scotland.
Health chiefs in Cumbria have said the new variant is in the county and could be behind sharp increases in new cases, while Lancashire’s director of public health said there was a “high likelihood” the new variant was in the county.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has written to the Prime Minister to say his party would back any Government moves to tighten restrictions if that is what scientists recommended.
Sinn Fein has said an island-wide travel shutout should be introduced in Ireland to stem the spread of the new variant there.
Meanwhile, it is expected NHS Test and Trace staff and the military will be deployed for the mass testing programme in Kent, where more than 2,800 HGVs were stuck on Tuesday afternoon.
France said a negative test result taken less than 72 hours before the journey would be required for those entering the country from the UK.
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said rapid lateral flow tests – which can give results in about 30 minutes – will be used in the testing programme, while the French authorities will be carrying out similar testing on hauliers entering the UK.
Full details of the testing programme have not yet been released, but Mr Shapps warned it could take until Christmas for congestion to be relieved near ports.
He said: “We have managed to get all those tests to Kent, enough for all the vehicles which will want to return before Christmas, so that won’t be an issue.
“Obviously there’s a physical issue of providing the test, getting the results. A negative test allows you to leave.
“But all of that requires operationalising and that can’t happen in an instant, so this will take two or three days for things to be cleared.”
He urged hauliers not to travel to Kent until further notice.
The Road Haulage Association (RHA) warned UK supply chains would be affected despite the mass testing programme being introduced.
An RHA spokesman said: “Even if the border is opened up, a short delay in the process is going to mean huge delays in the supply chain.”
Elizabeth de Jong, policy director at business group Logistics UK, said it was “vital” that testing procedures are “stood up fast to ensure drivers can be processed and get home for Christmas safely”.
She added: “The backlog of traffic across the region will take time to clear so hauliers should wait for further news before travelling to Kent.”
The protocol agreed with the French government will be reviewed on December 31 – but could run until January 6, the Department for Transport (DfT) said.
#COVID19: "Planes, boats and Eurostar trains will resume service as of tomorrow morning. French nationals, people living in France and those with a legitimate reason will have to be carrying a negative test" - French Minister Delegate for Transport: https://t.co/WWdzbczNP7— French Embassy UK (@FranceintheUK) December 22, 2020
Those who can make journeys include French and EU residents, British or third-party nationals who normally live in France or the EU, as well as some other groups.
The Transport Secretary also announced the temporary relaxation of drivers’ hours for hauliers to help them get through UK borders safely over the coming weeks.
The Netherlands has lifted its travel restrictions on passengers from the UK, provided they return a negative test result within 72 hours of departure.
Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said that perishable produce such as seafood must be prioritised if hauliers start moving freight across the Channel again on Wednesday.
She tweeted: “We still await detail of the agreement, but if freight starts moving tomorrow – as we must hope it will – the plan to prioritise perishable produce such as seafood should be activated immediately.”
– A group of Sikh volunteers and a local football club were among those sourcing hundreds of meals for lorry drivers stuck in Kent.
– Ms Sturgeon has apologised after she breached Covid rules by taking off her face mask at a funeral wake.
– Official figures showed a further 691 people had died within 28 days of testing positive for Covid-19 as of Tuesday and there had been another 36,804 lab-confirmed cases of coronavirus in the UK.