France agrees to reopen border after U.K.’s trucking route to Europe paralyzed over mutant virus fears

December 23, 2020, 10:33 AM UTC

Critical trade and transportation links between the U.K. and continental Europe are to resume after France agreed to end a suspension that crippled Britain’s busiest port at a time of high political drama over Brexit.

European Union citizens and residents able to show negative Covid-19 tests will be able to travel from the U.K., according to French Prime Minister Jean Castex. The objective is now to have freight traffic moving by Wednesday morning, a French official said.

France cut off shipments from Dover in southeast England on Sunday because of concern over a faster-spreading variant of Covid-19 that prompted the U.K. government to lock down London and surrounding areas.

What followed was two days of cross-Channel political bartering over the reopening of routes just as negotiations with the EU over a post-Brexit trade deal intensified. With less than 10 days to go before a transition period ends on Dec. 31, the upheaval gave a snapshot of the potential pain Britain’s closest continental neighbor can unleash.

The U.K. found itself effectively isolated as more than 40 countries restricted flights, including many EU members. On Wednesday, the Nikkei reported that Japan will suspend all foreign arrivals from the U.K. while the Philippines will halt all flights from Dec. 24 to Dec. 31 to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus variant. India, Hong Kong and Singapore have implemented similar measures.

Almost 3,000 trucks have been stuck in southeast England, threatening a deficit of some fresh food items in British supermarkets. German airline Deutsche Lufthansa AG said it would airlift fresh produce to the U.K. on Wednesday to ease any potential shortages.

Testing Talks

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson called French President Emmanuel Macron on Monday to try to find a solution and both sides had promised to resolve the border issue within hours. Instead, the impasse dragged on over a disagreement on how to ensure truck drivers were not carrying the new coronavirus strain into France.

The French side was pushing for haulers to take PCR tests, which give a result in between 24 and 48 hours, two people familiar with the matter said. The U.K. preferred lateral flow tests that are less accurate, but take only about 15 minutes — so could ease the blockage faster.

The British military and National Health Service will establish multiple testing sites in Kent, the county where Dover is located, Sky News reported.

The new travel restrictions will apply until at least Jan. 6, the French government said. The British side asked to publish any announcement late in the day to avoid too many trucks driving to Kent, according to a person familiar with the matter.

“Truckers shouldn’t, and it’s important, gather at departure points in Kent to avoid saturating the system we’re putting into place,” Jean-Baptiste Djebbari, French junior transport minister, told BFM TV.

U.K. Transport Secretary Grant Shapps echoed that request in a statement on Tuesday evening. “This protocol will see the French border reopen to those traveling for urgent reasons, provided they have a certified negative Covid test,” Shapps said. “We continue to urge hauliers not to travel to Kent until further notice as we work to alleviate congestion at ports.”

Isolating Britain

EU ambassadors meeting in Brussels agreed to continue monitoring the epidemiological situation closely and the EU’s crisis response unit is ready to meet if necessary in the coming days, EU diplomats said. The envoys stressed the importance of maintaining the flow of freight into and out of the U.K.

Doug Bannister, chief executive of the Port of Dover, said earlier that the backlog of cargo could be quickly cleared once France reopens its border. After a security-related shutdown was lifted in September, 4,500 trucks boarded ferries in just 12 hours, he said.

“Glad it’s finally been reopened,” said Duncan Buchanan, policy director of the Road Haulage Association, which represents U.K. trucking firms. “It was an unsustainable position to blockade the U.K. like that. Testing is a waste of time, but if you have to, you have to.”

Earlier on Tuesday, the European Commission called on member states to reopen critical trade and passenger transport links to the U.K. while discouraging non-essential travel.

Non-essential travel between the U.K and the EU is set to be temporarily restricted anyway from Jan. 1, when Britain leaves the continent’s customs union. As a so-called third country, the U.K. will be subject to Covid-related restrictions.

With 2021 looming, the broader contours of Britain’s future relationship with the EU are still being thrashed out by negotiating teams holed up in Brussels trying to finalize a trade deal.

The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, said Britain and the EU are giving negotiations on a trade deal “a final push,” while officials on both sides talked of a possible agreement as soon as Wednesday.

–With assistance from Alberto Nardelli, Lizzy Burden and Siddharth Philip.

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