COVID-19: 'Continue to shop normally' - Boris Johnson tries to reassure public after France freight ban

·4-min read

Britons have been told to continue shopping normally, despite France banning freight hauliers from crossing the English Channel over fears surrounding a new variant of coronavirus.

Addressing a Downing Street news conference, Boris Johnson said the "vast majority" of food and medical supplies are unaffected by the move.

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The discovery of the variant and worries about its spread saw the prime minister announce a new Tier 4 of COVID-19 restrictions for parts of England at the weekend, effectively cancelling Christmas plans for millions.

Mr Johnson also reduced the planned five-day relaxation of restrictions over the festive period to just Christmas Day.

The emergence of the new variant, which could be up to 70% more transmissible than other variants of coronavirus, has also seen a raft of countries introduce travel bans from the UK.

France went one step further by also restricting hauliers for 48 hours - while most others have exempted them to keep accompanied trade moving.

"It is vital first to stress that these delays - which are only occurring at Dover - only affect human-handled freight, and that is only 20% of the total arriving from or departing to the European continent," Mr Johnson said.

The PM said the government had "activated our long-prepared plans" to cope with Brexit disruption in the county and had been able to reduce the number of lorries waiting on the M20 from 500 to 170.

But Highways England has said there were in fact 900 lorries parked on the M20 at 6pm, the Press Association reports.

And in a message to the public after fears were raised of potential shortages, the prime minister added: "These delays only apply to a very small percentage of food entering the UK, and as British supermarkets have said, their supply chains are strong and robust, so everyone can continue to shop normally," Mr Johnson said.

Sainsbury's and Tesco have both said they have enough food for customers over Christmas, but warned of potential shortages of items like lettuce, cauliflower and citrus fruits if the freight ban continues.

Meanwhile, Tim Rycroft of the Food and Drink Federation said there was "no reason to be concerned for shoppers at the moment" - but voiced hopes the current serious disruption is a "wake up call to remind us of the fragility of these supply chains".

But supermarket shoppers reported seeing queues and empty shelves in scenes similar to those seen during the first lockdown earlier this year.

The PM said he had spoken with French President Emmanuel Macron and both sides are working to "unblock the flow of trade as fast as possible", as well as chairing a meeting of the government's emergency COBRA committee.

And while he said the government "fully" understands the "anxieties" of European countries about COVID-19 and the new variant, Mr Johnson told the news conference: "It is also true that we believe the risks of transmission by a solitary driver sitting alone in the cab are really very low.

"And so we hope to make progress as fast as we possibly can."

Answering questions from journalists later in the news conference, the PM said of his call with the French leader: "He stressed he was keen to sort it out in the next few hours if we can."

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps, speaking alongside Mr Johnson, urged people not to travel to Kent with the closure of the French border.

And he said lorry drivers were "steering clear" and "as a result we haven't seen any problems in the area".

Mr Shapps added: "Most of the lorries who are there are primarily European hauliers looking to transit back across to the continent."

He said the moveable barrier on the M20 will be deployed as part of Operation Brock to enable traffic to flow in both directions.

Highways England said Operation Brock would replace Operation Stack, which was activated overnight on Sunday, with hauliers "advised to avoid travelling to Kent as disruption could last for several days".

It said Operation Brock "opens up more of the road network" in the county "because it means traffic can continue to move in both directions on the M20 whereas Stack effectively closes it to coastbound traffic".

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Highways England added: "To make sure the barrier is deployed and removed safely, the M20 will be closed coastbound between junction 7 (for Maidstone) and junction 9 (Ashford), and London-bound between junctions 9 and 8 (Maidstone East), overnight tonight (8pm to 8am).

"The M20 will reopen by 8am Tuesday morning with the new road layout in place. Whenever the M20 is closed, signed diversions will be in place."