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Britain’s isolation eases, but trade backlog could take days to clear

Trucks backed up and parked on the highway in southern England while the Channel Tunnel to France remains closed.
Trucks backed up and parked on the highway Wednesday in southern England while the Channel Tunnel to France remains closed.
(Frank Augstein / Associated Press)

Goods and passengers with a negative coronavirus test began arriving from Britain on French shores Wednesday after France relaxed a two-day blockade imposed out of concern over a new, more infectious virus variant that has isolated the U.K., stranded thousands of truck drivers and raised fears of food shortages.

But officials warned that the backlog of trucks waiting to cross the English Channel would take days to work through. And many warned that the chaos was a precursor to what Britain may face if it doesn’t come to a trade agreement with the European Union before it leaves the bloc’s economic embrace Dec. 31.

Reporters saw a ferry from Britain pulling into the French port of Calais before dawn Wednesday, and rail operator Eurotunnel said trains carrying freight and car passengers were allowed to cross to the Continent beneath the English Channel again. But gridlock persisted and tempers flared at England’s port of Dover, where stranded truckers and travelers were desperate to get home for Christmas. Some truck drivers could be seen scuffling with police.

Nations around the world began barring people from Britain over the weekend after Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced that scientists said a new version of the virus whipping around London and England’s southeast may be more contagious. The announcement added to anxieties at a time when Europe has been walloped by soaring new coronavirus infections and deaths.

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Some European countries relaxed restrictions on Britain on Wednesday, though many remain in place. Still, it was France’s ban on freight that caused the most alarm, since the U.K. relies heavily on its cross-channel commercial links to the Continent for food at this time of year, especially fresh fruit and vegetables.

Fears of food shortages added to an already glum runup to Christmas in Britain, where authorities have scaled back or canceled plans to relax restrictions for the holiday as daily coronavirus infections soar and many hospitals near full capacity. Many Britons were already bracing for disruption in case the U.K. and the EU fail to agree on a new trade deal by the time the country leaves the bloc’s single market in just over a week.

In beleaguered Britain, Brexit is coming, Christmas is pretty much canceled and a new strain of the coronavirus brings near-pariah status. What next?

French authorities have insisted that the blockade was based on scientific concerns and not politics, but some couldn’t help but note that it may have offered a glimpse of what Britain can expect next year.

Clement Beaune, France’s European affairs minister, told BFM television during a discussion about the Brexit talks that, when it comes to trade, “the British side has much more dependence on Europe than the reverse.”

People arriving in France from Britain are required to have a coronavirus test capable of detecting the new variant, according to a late-night agreement reached after 48 hours of frenzied negotiations among French, British and EU authorities.

British Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick said that about 4,000 trucks may be waiting in the county of Kent to cross the channel and urged other truckers not to head there until the backlog is cleared. It will take “a few days” to test all the drivers before they can travel to France, he said.

“Whatever the number is, whether it is 4,000 or more, it is a significant number to work through,” Jenrick said.

Brexiteers staked the country’s future on Boris Johnson, believing he could lead an exit from the European Union with benefits and no costs. It’s not turning out that way.

Soldiers and contact tracers were being deployed to the area to administer tests. The backlog caused tension and protests in Dover. One truck driver from Poland complained about the lack of toilet facilities or food at the port.

Ben Richtzenhaim, who drove overnight from Scotland in hopes of reaching Europe by car, was stuck in a huge line despite testing negative.

“Looking around, it doesn’t really seem that there’s a lot of progress being made here,” he said. “People are still not moving out of the way and the authorities are not doing something either. So it’s a real deadlock.”

The Netherlands, Belgium and Bulgaria relaxed travel restrictions on Britain on Wednesday, but dozens of other countries are continuing to bar travelers. Japan announced that it will reinstate an entry ban on most new arrivals from the U.K.

Eurostar passenger train traffic was also resuming from Britain to the Continent, but only for citizens of Europe’s border-free zone, British citizens with EU residency and those with a special reason to come temporarily, such as truckers.


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