Concerns About Coronavirus Variant Cut Off U.K. From Europe

More than 30 countries banned air and rail links to Britain, foreshadowing what a ‘no deal’ Brexit could look like in 10 days.

LONDON — Britain was all but cut off from the rest of Europe on Monday, with flights and trains banned by more than 30 countries and freight deliveries temporarily halted at French ports, as countries rushed to stop a fast-spreading variant of the coronavirus from leaping across the English Channel.

The disruptions stoked fears of panic buying in British supermarkets, as Britons, already rattled by a surge in infections and a hastily imposed lockdown in much of England, worried about running out of fresh food in the days before Christmas.

It all added up to a chilling preview, 10 days before a deadline to negotiate a post-Brexit trade agreement between Britain and the European Union, of what a chaotic rupture between the two sides might actually look like.

For Prime Minister Boris Johnson, whose handling of the pandemic has been hampered by a reluctance to take harsh measures followed by abrupt reversals in the face of alarming new evidence, the cascading events posed perhaps the gravest challenge yet to his ardently pro-Brexit government.

As he huddled in emergency meetings, Mr. Johnson was simultaneously dealing with an escalating public-health crisis, economic upheaval and trade talks in Brussels that could cement the break between Britain and its neighbors.

Fears of a dangerous disruption to the country’s food supply eased over the course of the day, as French officials said they were working to devise health protocols that would allow cross-channel freight shipments to resume. But the multiplying problems hammered the stock market and depressed the pound.

Political commentators grasped for a precedent for the chaos, with some harkening back to the turbulent events of 1978 and 1979, when nationwide strikes, compounded by harsh winter weather, led to the collapse of the Labour government and the political ascension of Margaret Thatcher.

“The government has got to do something to get things under control,” said Jonathan Powell, who served as chief of staff to former Prime Minister Tony Blair when a series of strikes in 2000 caused a politically damaging fuel crisis. “The one thing the public hates is when the government loses control.”

Concerns About Coronavirus Variant Cut Off U.K. From Europe

Regent Street, in central London, on Saturday after Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced that the city and southeast England would enter a strict lockdown.Credit…Alberto Pezzali/Associated Press

The trigger for the current upheaval was Mr. Johnson’s announcement Saturday that he was imposing a strict lockdown on London and the southeast of England, after new veri indicated that a viral mutation had turbocharged infection rates in those areas. The variant, he said, was as much as 70 percent more transmissible than the original virus.

That was a reversal from three days earlier, when Mr. Johnson promised to honor his vow to ease restrictions for a few days around Christmas so that families could get together. Within hours of the announcement on Saturday, thousands of people thronged railway stations and airports to try to flee London before the new rules took effect.

That, in turn, prompted countries to ban flights from Britain — a list that began with the Netherlands and Belgium and grew to encompass most European Union countries, as well as Canada, India, Russia, Jordan, and Hong Kong. The United States has not yet suspended flights, though Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York was among those urging the Trump administration to do so.

The European Union said it would develop a coordinated strategy for how to handle travel to and from Britain. But for now, its actions were uncoordinated, adding to the uncertainty at Heathrow, one of the main airports serving London, and other airports.

British officials said they expected countries to ban travelers, since epidemiologists view that as necessary to break the chain of transmission across borders. But they appeared to be caught off guard by the French government’s decision to halt freight shipments, carried by truck drivers, for 48 hours.

France did not take such a step in March, when the virus first erupted in Europe, because the short crossing between the ports of Dover and Calais is a critical trade link for Britain and the continent, with thousands of trucks making the journey each day.

Travelers in Heathrow Airport on Monday. Several countries have banned flights from Britain since Mr. Johnson’s announcement. Credit…Niklas Halle’N/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The restriction led to mile-long pileups on both sides of the channel, as hundreds of trucks laden with seafood and produce were stopped along the highway leading to the port of Dover. In Calais, on the French side, truckers waited for government health guidance before driving their loads into Britain. The lack of clarity left between 2,000 and 3,000 French truckers stranded on the British side of the channel.

The French plan for health protocols to allow truckers to resume border crossings raised hopes that Britain’s supply chain would not be disrupted for more than a couple of days. British officials also said the restrictions would not affect shipments of the coronavirus vaccine, which come from a Pfizer plant in Belgium.

As a result of contingency planning in case the talks on a post-Brexit trade deal fail, Britain has increased its capacity to deal with disruption to traffic in Kent, where the major ports are. But so great was the gridlock on Monday that one supermarket chain warned of possible shortages of some food products ahead of Christmas, and business groups called for urgent action.

“They are carrying perishable products worth millions and the clock is ticking for that product to survive these delays,” said James Withers, chief executive at Scotland Food & Drink, who estimated that Scotland would ship £5 million, about $6.7 million, worth of food, much of it perishable, into France every day this week.

Mr. Withers said a new health protocol that would allow truckers to board cross-Channel ferries to France “could be a crucial development.” But he said the disarray should prompt the government to rethink what happens at the end of the Brexit transition period, which expires on Dec. 31.

“For two months we have been calling for a delay to new Brexit checks on exports,” Mr. Withers said. “The U.K. government has to recognize that we are in the midst of a perfect storm and to risk further disruption and financial damage to businesses in just 10 days’ time is completely unacceptable.”

Ian Wright, the chief executive of the Food and Drink Federation, warned that the disruption had “the potential to cause serious disruption to U.K. Christmas fresh food supplies — and exports of U.K. food and drink.”

A ferry leaving the port of Dover. Thousands of trucks make the crossing between Britain and France every day.Credit…Steve Parsons/Press Association, via Associated Press

“Continental truckers will not want to travel here if they have a real fear of getting marooned,” he said, adding that the government “must very urgently persuade the French government to exempt accompanied freight from its ban.”

With years of experience of dealing with disruptions, the port of Dover usually manages to clear traffic backlogs swiftly evvel ferry service resumes, typically within a day or so. However, the situation remained fluid and any additional health checks applied to truckers could bring further delays.

The implications of the chaos for Britain’s grinding trade negotiations with Brussels were not clear. Negotiators failed to strike a deal by Sunday night, which the European Parliament had set as a deadline for it to ratify the agreement in time for it to take effect on January 1.

But talks continued in Brussels on Monday, and both sides said a deal could be rushed through even at this late date. Negotiators appeared to have made some progress on the most contentious issue — European access to British fishing grounds — though there were no signs of an imminent breakthrough.

Some analysts interpreted France’s decision to halt freight traffic as a hardball tactic to remind British negotiators of the costs of failing to strike a trade agreement. Others said they were struck by the apparent lack of communication between Britain and its European neighbors after scientists identified the variant in Britain several weeks ago.

“If the Johnson government thought this through and actually talked to its partners, this could have been managed better,” said Anand Menon, a professor of European politics at King’s College London. “There seems to have been a failure of information exchange.”

A sign along a highway in northwest England warned drivers that all routes into France were closed.Credit…Paul Ellis/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Mr. Menon said the prime minister’s last-minute style and lack of consultation would make it politically more difficult for him both to sell a trade deal and to persuade lawmakers of the need for further lockdowns.

After the Mr. Johnson’s latest lockdown decision was announced on Saturday, some lawmakers from his Conservative Party demanded a recall of Parliament though there are no plans for one at present.

“The idea that this government treats Parliament with contempt is taking root,” he said. “It makes the political cost of this harder to bear.”

While the threat of a fast-spreading variant would have prompted the banning of travel under any circumstances, some analysts said Brexit made it politically easier for European governments to isolate Britain.

Mr. Powell, the former aide to Tony Blair, recalled the apocryphal newspaper headline, “Fog in Channel; Continent cut off,” that is often invoked to describe an inward-looking Britain and its arm’s length relationship with the rest of Europe.

“Little England has always wanted to cut off the continent,” Mr. Powell said. “They’ve finally achieved it.”

Source: The New York Times

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