France under pressure to end UK blockade as EU warns against blanket travel bans

Tom Belger
·Finance and policy reporter
·6-min read

Watch: Hundreds of lorries backed up with UK-France border closed

Negotiations are continuing to end France’s blockade of the UK, with the French government under pressure after the European Union (EU) warned against blanket travel and trade bans.

Home secretary Priti Patel said on Tuesday talks with the French government were ongoing, with officials looking at a mass testing of drivers to resolve the crisis. A French government source said a “solution” would be announced on Tuesday.

Hauliers in the UK are still being told to avoid Kent ports, while firms are warning food supplies are being “spoiled” with lorries stuck in Kent and beyond. The UK government said around 1,500 vehicles were stuck in the county, but business chiefs said 4,000 or more vehicles would be affected across the UK.

The EU has now urged member states to avoid blanket bans. The European Commission said countries should discourage non-essential travel from the UK but support essential travel and citizens returning home, adding that testing should not lead to transport disruption.

Asked if the issue would be resolved by the end of the day, she told Sky News: “We’ll see what materialises today.” A French government source said a “solution” would be announced on Tuesday.

READ MORE: Full list of countries banning UK flights and freight

More than 40 countries have now banned flights and other forms of travel from the UK, following the discovery of a mutant strain of COVID-19 that is said to be 70% more infectious. All Royal Mail post to Europe has also been temporarily suspended.

The new strain had already led the UK government and devolved administrations to announce stricter lockdown curbs over Christmas and beyond in England, Wales and Scotland, affecting the movement of around 18 million citizens.

UK prime minister Boris Johnson tried to calm the nation in a press conference on Monday after France began its 48-hour blockade over the new coronavirus strain. He said delays in supplies would only affect a minority of food and medicine supplies coming into Britain, hitting only freight accompanied by drivers.

Lorries parked on the M20 near Folkestone, Kent, as part of Operation Stack after the Port of Dover was closed and access to the Eurotunnel terminal suspended following the French government's announcement that it will not accept any passengers arriving from the UK for the next 48 hours amid fears over the new mutant coronavirus strain.
Lorries parked on the M20 near Folkestone, Kent, after the French government's announcement that it will not accept any passengers arriving from the UK for the next 48 hours amid fears over the new mutant coronavirus strain. Photo: PA.

The French blockade is the most significant for UK trade with Europe. Around 75% of dry cargo by value in the UK is handled by just seven ports, the largest being Southampton, Felixstowe and Dover, making it the UK's third largest port by value, according to a report by think tank Policy Exchange in 2018.

“Half of the trade passing through the sea ports of the UK is customs-free trade with the other 27 members of the EU. Dover is the dominant port for EU trade, accounting for 22% of the total (exports plus imports),” the report said.

Lorry drivers are reported to have spent a second night sleeping in their cabs near Dover, with the exact scale of lorry tailbacks unclear. One driver called the situation “terrible” after sleeping in his van.

The home secretary said 650 lorries were stuck on the M20 on Tuesday morning. She said another 873 lorries were parked up at the former Manston airport, an overspill site for Dover lorries that is already being expanded to cope with Brexit disruption. Patel said there were “welfare facilities and support” on site.

Food and Drink Federation CEO Ian Wright told MPs on Tuesday the real backlog was around 4,000 vehicles all over the UK which were due to leave the country in recent days. Duncan Buchanan of the Road Haulage Association said it would be “at least” that number, with backlogs up to 7,000 by the end of the day.

Food and medicine shortage fears grow

UK government ministers have told the public not to worry about food and medicine shortages ahead of the Christmas period. But firms are demanding an urgent solution on Tuesday, with supermarkets and trade bodies sounding the alarm over a potential hit to supplies and producers saying insurance policies will not cover their losses.

“UK shoppers need have no concerns about food supplies over Christmas, but impacts on local on-shelf availability of certain fresh foods look likely from next week unless we can swiftly restore this link,” said Ian Wright, CEO of the Food and Drink Federation.

“We must also recognise the terrible toll being taken on UK food exporters and on hauliers. Lorry loads worth millions of pounds are being spoiled.”

READ MORE: Travel chaos as airlines set out cancellation, refund and rebooking plans

The Scotland Food and Drink trade body released a statement late morning on Tuesday about the “deteriorating” situation, particularly for seafood, red meat and fresh veg exporters.

Chief executive James Withers warned the French ban could be a “fatal blow” for some shellfish exporters, making it “mission impossible” to get products to major markets in Spain on Wednesday. Firms would not be able to claim for losses as suggested by ministers, he added.

Meanwhile the British Retail Consortium (BRC) also warned fresh fruit and vegetable supplies would face disruption unless the borders were re-opened from Wednesday.

“The empty lorries which are now stuck in Kent, they need to get back to places like Spain to pick up the net (next) consignment of raspberries and strawberries and they need to get back within the next day or so otherwise we will see disruption,” the BRC’s director of food and sustainability told BBC Radio 4.

Sainsbury's (SBRY.L) said on Monday it will face “gaps over the coming days” in lettuce, salad leaves, cauliflower, broccoli and citrus fruit imports from elsewhere in Europe. It said in a statement it was sourcing everything it could from the UK and looking into alternative transport for imports.

READ MORE: Michael Gove admits UK could face weeks of Brexit border disruption next month

Tesco (TSCO.L) also said in a statement on Monday it had “plenty of food” after building its stocks ahead of Christmas, and encouraged customers to shop as normal. "If the current disruption continues then there may be reduced supply on a few fresh items, such as lettuce, cauliflower and citrus fruit later this week, but we don't expect any problems with availability on these lines today or tomorrow.”

The chaos over the new, more infectious, strain of COVID-19 comes on top of mounting border delays and disruption already from Brexit stockpiling and overwhelmed UK ports.

Further problems are expected at the end of the month when the end of the Brexit transition period sees trade rules overhauled, with ministers admitting there could be weeks of disruption. Leading EU politician Guy Verhofstadt tweeted that those who assumed borders would remain open outside the EU would “now start to understand what leaving the EU really means.”

WATCH: What happens if no Brexit trade deal is struck?