Talks with France on reopening full trade and transport across the Channel are “ongoing” – as countries across the world have closed their borders to the UK.
France shut its border with the UK for 48 hours on Sunday night, prompting delays for freight lorries heading across the Channel as a variant of coronavirus spreads across the UK.
The closure is due to end at tonight at 11pm UK-time.
The M20 in Kent was closed on Monday night to allow for the implementation of Operation Brock – contingency measures which involve using a moveable barrier to keep traffic moving on the motorway whenever there is disruption at the Channel – as confusion surrounded how many lorries were impacted by the border shutdown.
Highways England had earlier 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”.
Mr Johnson said at a Downing Street news briefing the number of lorries waiting on the M20 had been reduced from 500 to 170, but Highways England later said Kent Police had told them there were 900 lorries parked on the motorway as of 6pm on Monday.
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Government sources have said discussions with the French government are “ongoing”.
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.
The closure of cross-Channel routes alarmed businesses, including those relying on the trouble-free passage of produce into the UK, as well as holidaymakers looking to leave for the continent – all with the added complication of the end of the Brexit transition period on 31 December.
Supermarket giant Sainsbury’s warned that disruption in Kent could hit supplies of lettuce, some salad leaves, cauliflowers, broccoli and citrus fruit, all of which are imported from mainland Europe in the winter.
Britons have been told to continue shopping normally.
Addressing a Downing Street news conference, Boris Johnson said the “vast majority” of food and medical supplies are unaffected by the move.
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.
The Northern Ireland Executive held an emergency late-night meeting amid a row over whether a Great Britain travel ban should be introduced, proposed by Sinn Fein but voted down by the executive.
Speaking about the variant of coronavirus that is spreading across the UK, the government’s chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance said at the Downing Street briefing: “The evidence on this virus is that it spreads easily, it’s more transmissible, we absolutely need to make sure we have the right level of restrictions in place.
“I think it is likely that this will grow in numbers of the variant across the country and I think it’s likely, therefore, that measures will need to be increased in some places, in due course, not reduced.”
The New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag) met again on Monday to consider the new variant and said, while it does not appear to alter the course of the disease, it does spread more easily.
“That again reinforces the point that it’s important to get ahead of this and to make sure that the tiering system is adequate to stop things going, and not to watch it and react in retrospect,” Sir Patrick said.
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Given the “inevitable mixing” over Christmas “I think there will be some increases in numbers over the next few weeks”, he added.
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.