U.K. Cut Off Over Fears About New COVID Strain

DOVER, England (Reuters) -
General view of nearly empty Port of Dover as EU countries impose a travel ban from the U.K. following the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Dover, Britain, Monday. (Reuters/Matthew Childs)

The United Kingdom was on Monday shut off from the rest of Europe after its closest allies cut transport ties due to fears about a new coronavirus strain, sowing chaos for families and companies just days before it exits the European Union’s orbit.

France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Austria, Switzerland, Ireland, Belgium, Israel and Canada were among those that shut off travel ties after Prime Minister Boris Johnson warned that a highly infectious new strain of the virus was a danger to the country.

Johnson will chair an emergency response meeting on Monday to discuss international travel, in particular the flow of freight in and out of Britain. EU officials are due to hold a meeting at 1000 GMT on coordinating their response.

France shut its border to arrivals of people and trucks from the United Kingdom, closing off one of the most important trade arteries with mainland Europe, a step Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said was surprising.

“We’re doing everything we can to get that restarted,” Shapps told Sky. “They’ve said to us they want to restart the hauliers as quickly as possible.”

As families and truck drivers tried to navigate the travel bans to get back home, there were fears that fresh food supplies to and from Europe would be disrupted, though supermarkets have enough to cope with demand for now.

Shellfish producers in Scotland said they had tonnes of perishable product stranded on roads as the French border was closed. Disruption in Britain will also snarl supplies to Ireland.

Hong Kong is also due to ban all flights arriving from the United Kingdom from midnight, becoming the first city in Asia to do so. Asian nations including Japan and South Korea said they were closely monitoring the new strain.

The pound fell more than 2 cents to $1.3279 and the FTSE 100 fell 2% at the open, with travel companies such as British Airways-owner IAG tumbling 15%. The yield on two-year U.K. gilts hit a record low.

Britain’s Shapps said getting the bans lifted as swiftly as possible was his priority but that given British preparations for the end of the Brexit transition period, the country was well positioned for disruption.

Johnson on Saturday canceled plans for millions of British people due to what he said was a more infectious strain of the coronavirus, though he said there was no evidence that it was either more lethal or caused a more severe illness.

The new variant contains 23 different changes, many of them associated with how it binds to cells and enters them. Shapps said Britain had done some of the best global analysis of the mutations of the virus so it was simply seeing what was already at large in other countries.

The British government triggered plans it had for stacking up trucks in the southeast county of Kent – part of its plans for potential disruption when the United Kingdom exits the EU’s orbit with – or without – a trade deal at midnight on Dec. 31.

Talks on a Brexit trade deal were due to continue on Monday.

Trucks are being stacked on the M20 motorway through Kent, heading towards the ports, which is closed to normal traffic. A nearby airport will also be used to hold freight.

“Sick Man of Europe,” the Daily Mirror newspaper said on its front page beside a picture of Johnson, while the Sun newspaper said “French show no merci.”

The closure of the Channel Tunnel and ports for onward travel to France will affect the export of goods such as fish and shellfish from Scotland to Europe, and the import of food for British supermarkets if, as expected, European drivers refuse to travel.

Trucks have been told to avoid Kent to prevent any further buildup of trucks.