LONDON – More than 1,500 trucks were stranded in England on Tuesday morning amid fears that Britain could face food shortages if travel restrictions put in place to slow the spread of a new strain of the coronavirus aren’t lifted soon.
Dozens of countries around the world have slapped tough travel curbs on the U.K. in recent days: From Canada to India, nations banned flights from Britain, while France barred the entry of trucks from the country for 48 hours from late Sunday while the strain is assessed.
Home Secretary Priti Patel told BBC radio that the British government is “speaking constantly” with France to achieve a swift resolution in order to get freight moving again. In the meantime, trucks were piling up in Kent, the county in southeast England that is home to some of the most popular cross-Channel ports.
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Patel said 650 vehicles were lined up on the main highway into the Port of Dover, while another 873 had been redirected to the nearby disused Manston Airport.
“It’s in both our interests, both countries to ensure that we have flow, and of course there are European hauliers right now who want to be going home,” she said.
While the French ban does not prevent trucks from entering Britain, the move stoked worries about shortages at a time of year when the U.K. produces very little of its food and relies heavily on produce delivered from Europe by truck.
Many trucks that carry cargo from Britain to the continent return laden with goods. The fear is that will fall off. Also, some drivers or their employers might decide against entering Britain for fear they won’t be able to get back home.
Given that around 10,000 trucks pass through the Dover every day, accounting for about 20% of the country’s trade in goods, retailers are getting increasingly concerned if there is no resolution soon.
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Andrew Opie, director of food and sustainability at the British Retail Consortium, warned of potential shortages of food like lettuce, vegetables and fresh fruit, after Christmas if the borders are not “running pretty much freely” from Wednesday.
“The problem actually is empty lorries, so the empty lorries which are now stuck in Kent, they need to get back to places like Spain to pick up the next consignment of raspberries and strawberries and they need to get back within the next day or so, otherwise we will see disruption,” he said.
Over the weekend, Johnson imposed strict lockdown measures in London and neighboring areas amid mounting concerns over the new variant to the virus.
The chief executive of BioNTech — the German pharmaceutical company behind a vaccine now being rolled out in the U.K. and elsewhere — said he was confident that its shot would work against the new variant, but further studies are need to be completely sure.
Ugur Sahin said Tuesday that “we don’t know at the moment if our vaccine is also able to provide protection against this new variant” but because the proteins on the variant are 99% the same as the prevailing strains BioNTech has “scientific confidence” in the vaccine.
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Johnson said early indications are that the variant is 70% more transmissible and is driving the rapid spread of infections in the capital and surrounding areas.
As a result, he scrapped a planned relaxation of rules over Christmastime for millions of people and imposed other tough new restrictions in the affected zone. No indoor mixing of households will be allowed, and only essential travel will be permitted.
The virus is blamed for 1.7 million deaths worldwide, including nearly 68,000 in Britain, the second-highest death toll in Europe, behind Italy’s 69,000.
The chaos at the border comes at a time of huge uncertainty for Britain, less than two weeks before it completes its exit from the EU and frees itself from the bloc’s rules. Talks on a post-Brexit trade relationship between the two sides are deadlocked.