The United Kingdom was stuck in COVID-19 isolation on Tuesday after much of the world cut off travel ties due to a highly infectious new coronavirus strain, snarling one of Europe’s most important trade routes just days before the Brexit cliff edge.
With queues of trucks snaking to the horizon in England and supermarket shelves stripped just days before Christmas, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson scrambled to get French President Emmanuel Macron to lift a ban on freight from Britain.
Johnson and his advisers said the mutated variant of the novel coronavirus, which could be up to 70% more transmissible, was spreading rapidly but that it had been identified because British scientists were so efficient at genomic surveillance.
The BBC cited France’s Europe Minister Clément Beaune as saying that Britain and France would announce a deal to restart freight by Wednesday. One option is to roll out mass testing for truck drivers.
“We speak to our colleagues in France constantly on a range of issues and that work has been underway over the last 24 hours and we’ll continue today,” Home Secretary Priti Patel told Sky News. “We’ll see what materialises today.”
Asked if there would be an agreement on Tuesday, Patel said: “We’re working to get a resolution. It’s in both our interests to ensure that we have flow.”
Johnson spoke to Macron on Monday about lifting the freight ban, adding that the French leader wanted to move within hours. Patel said details could be announced later on Tuesday.
The discovery of the new strain, just months before vaccines are expected to be widely available, sowed a fresh wave of panic in a pandemic that has killed about 1.7 million people worldwide and more than 67,000 in Britain.
Countries around the world have shut their borders to Britain since the weekend, when Johnson cancelled Christmas plans for millions of Britons due to the new strain of the virus, though he said there was no evidence that it was either more lethal or caused a more severe illness.
The main worry is that the variant is significantly more transmissible than the original strain. It has 23 mutations in its genetic code – a relatively high number of changes – and some of these are affecting its ability to spread.
Scientists say there’s no evidence that vaccines currently being deployed in the UK – made by Pfizer PFE.N and BioNtech 22UAy.DE – or other COVID-19 shots in development will not protect against this variant, known as the B.1.1.7 lineage.
The United Kingdom is in effective COVID-19 quarantine just nine days before it is due to parts ways with the EU after a transition period in one of the biggest changes in post-World War Two British history.
The renewed crisis led to some panic-buying shoppers stripping shelves in supermarkets.
Stranded truck drivers near the port of Dover said they just wanted to get back home in time for Christmas. Most slept overnight in their trucks.
“My chances of going home for Christmas are going down. It’s stupid and I am nervous and unhappy about that,” said Stanislaw Olbrich, a 55-year-old Polish trucker stuck 24 miles (40 km) north of Dover.