The European Union has urged member states to drop travel bans imposed on the United Kingdom, including freight restrictions, after a decision by the French government to shut the border saw 1,500 lorries filling the motorway and streets around Dover in Kent.
Guidance published by the European Commission on Tuesday included recommendations to "discourage" all non-essential travel to and from the UK due to the risk posed by a newer fast-spreading version of coronavirus.
However, it also said that flight and train bans should be "discontinued given the need to ensure essential travel and avoid supply chain disruptions."
— European Commission 🇪🇺 (@EU_Commission) December 22, 2020
Regarding lorry drivers and their cargos returning to the Continent, the commission said that coronavirus testing "should not lead to transport disruptions."
This follows No10 sources accusing Paris of introducing a travel ban in order to shift Brexit negotiations in their favour, as stranded French drivers slam President Emmanuel Macron for "abandoning them in a foreign country."
— Simon Jones (@SimonJonesNews) December 21, 2020
Who's to Blame?
Despite leaders insistence that the bans have nothing to do with Brexit, the MailOnline reported that Prime Minister Boris Johnson is convinced French President Macron is using the crisis to force Britain to concede over the deadlocked trade talks.
UK Transport Minister Grant Shapps implied that the ban was unexpected by the government, saying yesterday that the move was "slightly surprising."
Following the identification of the new strain of COVID-19 in the southeast of England, Sunday night saw France bring in the travel ban on arrivals from the UK.
Over 1,500 lorries are now stuck on the Kent border, unable to cross from the UK to the mainland, with drivers being forced to spend a second night sleeping in their vehicles and relying on support from local communities.
— Khalsa Aid (@Khalsa_Aid) December 22, 2020
"It was the French in particular who were the first out of the traps [with a travel ban] and Macron has been so bombastic over Brexit and fisheries over the last few weeks one must conclude it is a shot across the bows of the UK," a Tory MP reportedly told MailOnline.
"It does look as if that is what they are trying to do."
The unnamed MP said that Macron had been "the most difficult of the EU leaders in these negotiations and I think he's doing it deliberately because he has elections coming up."
However, Ian Wright, the chief executive of the Food and Drink Federation, told the Business Select Committee on Tuesday that the chaos was the result of Westminster's ineptitude and that ministers should issue compensation to those businesses affected.
"Much of this should have been avoided. The government was well aware of the power of the announcement it made on Saturday night, indeed Chris Whitty went out of his way probably rightly to scare the population about the impact of the second variant of Covid," he said.
MailOnline reports suggest Macron had accepted an offer from the UK to introduce lateral flow tests which can give results within an hour compared to PCR tests which can take around 48 hours.
The UK and France hope to come to a resolution over the border ban on Tuesday but industry bosses warn the disruption could last for days due to the lasting impact of blocking essential transport at the border.
However, the MailOnline reports that the two sides have not yet come to an agreement on how to open the border.
UK Home Secretary Priti Patel told BBC radio that the government is “constantly” in contact with France over getting freight moving again. France claims it wants to see the ban lifted as quickly as possible and is seeking the introduction of a testing system.
“It’s in both our interests, both countries to ensure that we have flow, and of course there are European hauliers right now who want to be going home,” she said.
While the 48-hour closure is set to end at 11 pm UK time, France was the only country to impose travel restrictions on the UK, with over 40 countries banning flights.
Around 10,000 trucks pass through the Dover border on a daily basis, making up close to 20% of the country’s imported goods. This has led to increased anxiety for retailers over supply chains being disrupted and essential produce being delayed.
This morning the Home Sec said “Dover is not the only port we have in the United Kingdom”. True... so what is all the fuss about?— Nick Jones (@NickHuwJones) December 22, 2020
What the fuss is about: pic.twitter.com/hidsysOxnj
Andrew Opie, director of food and sustainability at the British Retail Consortium, said that food such as lettuces, vegetables, and fresh fruit could be in short supply after Christmas if traffic is not “running pretty much freely” from Wednesday onwards.
He explained that the empty trucks sitting in jams will be unable to obtain new deliveries for British suppliers.
“They need to get back to places like Spain to pick up the next consignment of raspberries and strawberries, and they need to get back within the next day or so, otherwise we will see disruption," he said.
A Double Crisis?
This follows new lockdown measures introduced in large parts of the UK by Prime Minister Boris Johnson after the discovery of the new fast-spreading coronavirus variant.
Johnson dropped a planned relaxation of rules during the Christmas period which would have allowed free travel and indoor mixing of households.
The border crisis comes as the UK is just two weeks away from completely exiting the EU's rules and regulations while Brexit trade talks remain deadlocked over key areas of disagreement.