Watch: We will have to look at tougher measures for France, Boris Johnson says
The prime minister hinted that "tougher measures" will be imposed at the border, which could mean testing being introduced for hauliers – potentially disrupting the supply of goods – and France being added to the government’s “red list” of banned countries.
The admission came during a heated exchange with Labour MP Yvette Cooper at the House of Commons liaison committee, in which the pair repeatedly shouted over each other.
There have been questions about how effective COVID-19 vaccines will be if the new variants spread in the UK.
And Cooper, the chair of the home affairs committee, pointed to data showing France is seeing up to 3,000 new cases involving the variants every day, with 20,000 people travelling to the UK from France every week.
Two-thirds of these people are hauliers, Cooper said, who are exempt from testing. She asked: “Why are you not testing them?”
Johnson said: "The people who are coming in are overwhelmingly those whose business is deemed essential for the security of supply of our country. I’ve explained that tougher measures would have very serious disruption on those trade flows…”
At this point, an angry Cooper tried to interrupt, but Johnson continued: “That has to be balanced against the current ambiguity about the effectiveness of the vaccines on the variants."
But he conceded: “I agree with you that this is an issue of concern.”
Hinting at testing for hauliers at the border and the possible addition of France to the red list, Johnson added: “I think we now, in all seriousness, need to look at the situation at the Channel. I’m afraid we can’t rule out tougher measures and we will put them in if necessary."
With the pair again shouting over each other, Johnson said: "If it’s necessary to bring in testing then we will do so, but I think you should understand the balance of doing that, the disruption to trade, and the risk that we are trying to address."
Cooper, who also clashed with the PM at the previous liaison committee meeting in January, accused Johnson of "one delay after another".
Johnson again insisted "there is a balance to be struck" between the supply of goods and need for testing.
The PM, who this week warned a third wave of infections will "wash up on our shores" from Europe, added: "What we don't know is the exact state of the efficacy of the vaccines against the new variants and we have to balance that against the very serious disruption... by curtailing cross-Channel trade."
Adding France to the red list, meanwhile, would mean everyone apart from UK and Irish citizens – as well as hauliers – would be banned from entering the UK if they had been in France over the past 10 days.
Johnson said it is "something that we will have to look at".
Sixteen areas of France, including Paris, went into a month-long lockdown on Friday amid the country's third wave.
Watch: How England is leaving lockdown