France relaxed its coronavirus-related ban on trucks from Britain on Tuesday after a two-day standoff that had stranded thousands of drivers and raised fears of Christmastime food shortages in the U.K.
French authorities, who had imposed the ban to try to protect the continent from a new variant of the virus that is circulating in London and southeast England, said delivery drivers could enter by ferry or tunnel provided they showed proof of a negative test for the virus. Select passengers will be allowed back on the continent, too.
After two days of intense talks with British and European Union partners, French Transport Minister Jean-Baptiste Djebbari said in a statement that the coming hours would be dedicated to setting up testing sites so that British truckers could make it to the continent and back in time for Christmas. Quick tests will be accepted if they are able to detect the new virus variant, Djebbari said.
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At least 2,800 truck drivers had been anxiously waiting near the England Channel port of Dover for word they could cross over to the continent. French and British authorities urged them to avoid ports until they can get tested.
France also said it would allow EU travelers, along with British citizens with EU residency, back into the country if they had a negative virus test in the preceding 72 hours. British tourists remain barred.
Some 40 countries imposed travel bans on Britain, leaving the island nation increasingly isolated, after Prime Minister Boris Johnson warned over the weekend that the new variant of the virus might be 70% more contagious.
But the French restrictions were particularly worrisome, given that Britain relies heavily on its cross-Channel commercial links to the continent for food this time of year.
At the same time, Britain is witnessing an alarming rise in infections, with a record 36,800 reported Tuesday, and is facing deep uncertainty over its final exit from the European Union in less than two weeks. Despite the looming deadline, the country has yet to work out its post-Brexit trade arrangements with the EU.
“What is so bad to me, is not just this new mutation, but the fact that we have been so bad at dealing with the pandemic, and it now looks like we’re heading for what’s called a perfect storm with the mutation 70% more infectious and Brexit all at the same time,” 73-year-old Jim Gibson of London said during the standoff.
“People are really struggling to get their heads round one of these, let alone both — and now we’re being told we may have eaten our last lettuce for three months, too, probably.”
For the drivers, it was a grim couple of days, with some complaining about the lack of toilet facilities and food.
“My family is waiting for me, my children, my daughter, my son, my wife,” said Greg Mazurek of Poland. “It was supposed to be a very quick trip, three to four days max. I spent in the U.K. 10 minutes in the gas station and 20 minutes unloading, and now I need to wait two days here in the port in Dover.”
British retailers had become increasingly concerned about the blockage at the ports, given that 10,000 trucks pass through Dover every day, accounting for about 20% of the country’s trade in goods.
Andrew Opie, director of food and sustainability at the British Retail Consortium, warned of potential shortages of fresh vegetables and fruit after Christmas if the borders are not “running pretty much freely” by Wednesday.
The problem, he explained, is that the empty trucks sitting in England can’t reach the continent to pick up deliveries for Britain.
“They need to get back to places like Spain to pick up the next consignment of raspberries and strawberries, and they need to get back within the next day or so, otherwise we will see disruption,” he said.
The virus is blamed for 1.7 million deaths worldwide, including more than 68,000 in Britain, the second-highest death toll in Europe, behind Italy’s 69,000.
Over the weekend, Johnson imposed strict lockdown measures in London and neighboring areas amid mounting concerns over the new variant. He scrapped a planned relaxation of rules over Christmastime for millions of people and banned indoor mixing of households. Only essential travel will be permitted.
In Switzerland, meanwhile, authorities are trying to track an estimated 10,000 people who have arrived by plane from Britain since Dec. 14, and has ordered them to quarantine for 10 days. Switzerland was one of the 40-odd countries to ban flights from Britain over the new variant.
The quarantine order is likely to affect thousands of Britons who may have already headed to Swiss ski resorts. Unlike many of its neighbors, Switzerland has left most of its slopes open, attracting enthusiasts from around Europe.
“Do not leave your room or residence and avoid all contacts,” Switzerland’s public health agency urged vacationing Britons and South Africans. It warned they face potential fines of 10,000 Swiss francs ($11,250).
Angela Charlton in Paris, Jo Kearney in Dover, England, Lorne Cook in Brussels and Frank Jordans in Berlin contributed to this report.
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