Britain became more isolated Monday as additional countries imposed bans on British commercial airline flights, automobile journeys and cross-Channel trains and freight because of rising international alarm over a more infectious coronavirus strain that has flared in London and southern England.
Countries imposing travel bans include France, Germany, Italy, Switzerland, Poland, Belgium, Austria, Bulgaria, the Netherlands, India and Canada. In all, more than 40 countries have instituted bans on arrivals at their airports from Britain.
U.S. politicians were also pushing to halt all flights from Britain to America. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo urged federal officials to ban or at least set stringent travel restrictions on Britons. He warned that the new, more easily transmitted strain could spread to New York from the half-a-dozen flights a day that land at JFK airport from Britain.
On Sunday, France took the unprecedented step of completely shutting its borders to Britain, initially for 48 hours. That has prevented British freight drivers from accessing mainland Europe and deterred European cargo-handlers from dispatching goods to Britain, disrupting supply chains and raising the prospects of food and drug shortages in Britain over the Christmas holiday season.
In a press conference on Monday, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson urged Britons to remain calm, saying most supplies are coming in and out of the country as normal.
“I have just spoken to (French) President (Emmanuel) Macron, and we both understand each other’s problems and want to resolve the problems,” Johnson said, adding that he understood the anxieties of Britain’s neighbors but said there was little risk of a spread via truck drivers.
But one of Britain’s major supermarket chains warned the blockade could trigger shortages of fresh fruit and vegetables later this week. In a statement, Sainsbury’s said it expected shortfalls in fresh produce such as lettuce, cauliflower, broccoli and citrus fruit, “all of which are imported from the continent at this time of year.”
The French haulage ban caused chaos in the southern English County of Kent, where Britain’s busiest port, Dover, is located and where trucks were backed up on roads miles from the coast. About 6,000 trucks were scheduled to cross the English Channel to northern France on Monday.
All haulers were ordered by the government to stay away from Kent. Thousands of trucks already bound for the southrn coast were being redirected to an unused airport.
Ministers downplayed the risk of food shortages. Transport Minister Grant Shapps said Britons would not notice supermarket shortages “for the most part.” But British ministers held urgent talks with their French counterparts to see if the ban could be lifted.
There were some signs that the French might rethink the blockade. French Transport Minister Jean-Baptiste Djebbari held out the prospect of the ban being reversed once Paris and the European Union agreed to a new “health protocol” to allow traffic to resume between Britain and France.
“In the coming hours, at European level, we will be putting in place a solid health protocol so that flows from the United Kingdom can resume. Our priority: protect our nationals and fellow citizens,” Djebbari tweeted.
But French government spokesman Gabriel Attal said the major aim of the discussions around a protocol is to ensure that 2,000 French truckers stranded in Britain “could come over the border as soon as possible.”
Officials from EU member states were briefed Monday by the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control on the new coronavirus variant. They agreed the priority was to keep EU borders open and to ensure the repatriation of citizens and legal EU residents wishing to return from Britain, according to European diplomats.
Freight-carrying trucks were still being allowed to travel Monday from Britain to Dutch and Belgian ports, and the French have been allowing unaccompanied freight in containers to be maneuvered back and forth.
An additional 33,364 Britons tested positive for the coronavirus Monday, following a record-breaking 35,928 new infections on Sunday. The new figures bring Britain's total confirmed cases to 2,073,511, and its death tally to 67,616 — just 2,384 short of the country’s total civilian death toll in World War II.
Johnson chaired a meeting of the British government’s Cobra emergencies committee Monday.
On Saturday, he announced strict pandemic restrictions on London and much of southern and eastern England. Downing Street played down the need to expand restrictions to the north of the country. Ministers hope the actions they have taken, which virtually cancel Christmas “as planned,” according to Johnson, for nearly 20 million Britons and prevents households from mixing in the newly locked-down areas, will be enough to curb the spread of the new strain.
Britain’s chief scientific officer, Patrick Vallance, said it has become clear that the new variant is more easily transmitted but said there is no evidence it is any more lethal than other coronavirus strains. He also emphasized there is nothing to suggest that newly developed vaccines would not be effective against this new mutation.
But government advisers and independent experts have cautioned that more work is necessary to ensure that is the case.
The new variant of the coronavirus is concerning, said Danny Altmann, a professor at Imperial College London, but he believes widespread inoculation will control it in the end.
Writing in The Times newspaper, Altmann said, “As a professor of immunology who has spent the past 10 months working on detailed mapping of immunity to Sars-CoV-2, I feel we need to do careful experiments, but I am calm and retain total faith in these stupendous vaccines.”
The new strain was confirmed December 13 in the county of Kent in southern England. Initial analysis by government scientists suggested it is “growing faster than the existing variants.”
The variant was initially found in a patient in September. Genome sequencing, which took nearly a month, indicated it was a new strain, but government scientists were not too worried, as mutations come and go.
But as infections continued to surge in November and December, scientists realized they were dealing with a more infectious version of the virus.
The new variant includes up to 23 changes, including with the spike protein, which the virus uses to enter human cells that allow it to replicate. There have been many mutations in the virus since it emerged last year in Wuhan, China, with 4,000 mutations in the protein alone. Virologists say most mutations are insignificant and part of the expected evolution of the virus.