Trucks waiting to get out of Britain backed up for miles and people were left stranded at airports Monday as countries around the world imposed stringent travel restrictions on the U.K. because of a new and seemingly more contagious strain of the coronavirus in England.
A growing number of countries halted air travel from Britain, while France banned British trucks for 48 hours while the new variant is assessed.
British Health Secretary Matt Hancock said the strain is “out of control” around London and southeastern England, though experts have said it is not clear whether it is more lethal, and they expressed confidence that the vaccines now being rolled out would still be effective against it.
There were rising hopes that France would soon allow traffic to flow again, if truck drivers took coronavirus tests on arrival.
While the French ban does not prevent trucks from heading for Britain, the move stoked worries about shortages at a time of year when Britain produces very little of its food and relies heavily on produce delivered from Europe by truck. In a sign of the government’s concern, Prime Minister Boris Johnson called a meeting of the government’s emergency committee.
France’s Minister of Transport Jean-Baptiste Djebbari indicated that a solution was coming. In a tweet, he said that “in the coming hours, at a European level, we will put a solid health protocol in place so that the flow from the United Kingdom can resume.”
And a croaky-voiced French President Emmanuel Macron, who is working from the Elysee Palace as he recovers from COVID-19, told a Cabinet meeting by video: “We are looking at systematic testing upon arrival.”
Canada, India, France, Germany, Italy, Spain and Poland were among the countries that halted flights from Britain. In the U.S., New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said he wanted a ban on flights from Britain to New York City. Eurotunnel, the rail operator that carries passengers and freight between Britain mainland Europe, also suspended service out of the U.K.
The moves come in the wake of Johnson’s announcement on Saturday that he was placing London and the southeast of England in a newly created tier of restrictions after scientific advisers warned that they had detected a new strain of the virus that may be more contagious.
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.
The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control said that while preliminary analysis suggests the new variant is “significantly more transmissible,” there is no indication that infections are more severe. Experts, however, have stressed that even if the new strain is not more lethal, it is inevitable that more infections will lead to more hospitalizations and deaths.
The Stockholm-based agency said a few cases of the variant have been reported by Iceland, Denmark and the Netherlands. It also cited news reports of cases in Belgium and Italy.
The chaos at the border comes at a time of huge uncertainty for Britain, less than two weeks before the final stage of the country’s exit from the EU.
Though Britain left the bloc on Jan. 31, it is in a transition period during which it effectively abides by EU rules until the end of this year. Talks on a post-Brexit trade relationship were deadlocked but set to resume on Monday.