Continuing travel bans over U.K. coronavirus mutation leave thousands of trucks stranded

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LONDON — The ports on both sides of the English Channel, one of the most crucial hubs in Europe between Britain and France, remained snarled with thousands of idled cargo trucks on Tuesday, over fears of a fast-spreading, highly transmissible coronavirus mutation spreading “out of control” in England.

More than 40 countries have erected travel bans with Britain, disrupting passenger air service between the United Kingdom and the rest of the world.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has promised his country that a newly sovereign, free-trading, swashing buckling “Global Britain” will soar after Brexit in less than 9 days.

But with no free trade deal signed between Britain and the European Union, and ferries and the channel tunnel frozen at the gateway to Europe, Britons suddenly found themselves more isolated than ever.

France was considering a limited re-opening of frieght traffic via ferry, train and tunnel, but only for its own nationals, for Britons residing in France and professional truck drivers — and only if they provide a recent negative coronavirus test, according to French news media.

France and Britain continued to haggle over the details late Tuesday.

Added to the sense of loneliness, after saying that it would be “inhumane” to cancel Christmas gatherings of friends and family, Johnson felt compelled to do just that, based on advice from his public health advisers, who see cases of the coronavirus soaring here.

More than 18 million Britons are now in “Tier 4” lockdown, with all nonessential shops, pubs, restaurants and theaters closed.

Anthony Fauci, America’s top infectious disease official, told the BBC on Tuesday he would not recommend a total ban on arrivals from Britain, saying that “might be a bit of an overreaction.”

The European Commission on Tuesday sought a middle path.

It advised all 27 member states to end bans on flights and trains from Britain and to reopen freight routes. “All non-essential travel to and from the UK should be discouraged,” the E.U.’s executive arm said, but “flight and train bans should be discontinued given the need to ensure essential travel and avoid supply chain disruptions,” including the delivery of coronavirus vaccines.

The tussle over travel and trade came as scientists in Britain and around the world scrambled to assess the impact of the new mutation of coronavirus, first spotted in England.

The developer of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine said Tuesday that his company’s inoculation is likely to be effective against the new variant identified in Britain, but that a new version could be developed within six weeks if necessary.

Whether regulators would be willing to quickly approve a slightly modified version of the vaccine that has been cleared for distribution in the United States, Britain and European Union is another story, CEO Ugur Sahin told reporters at a news conference. But from a technical perspective, tweaking the vaccine produced in partnership with Pfizer would simply be a matter of replacing one mutation with another while the “messenger” molecule remained the same.

Reiterating his previous comments to German media, Sahin said he was confident that the vaccine would protect recipients against the new variant. But he added that it would take roughly two weeks for scientists to conduct enough tests and collect enough data to say for sure.

“The likelihood that our vaccine will work is relatively high,” he said, noting that 99 percent of proteins found in the new mutation are the same as in other strains.

Sharon Peacock, the director of the British consortium tracking mutations of the virus, said Tuesday, “we have no evidence that the vaccine is in any compromised by this new variant.”

Judith Breuer, professor of virology at Univeristy College London, said the signifcant rise in the prevlance of the variant strongly suggested the new mutation that is driving increased transmission.

Breuer said that in coming weeks, researchers will be able to see if the increased spread of the variant leads to increased disease, as might be captured by a outsized spike in hospitalizations and deaths.

The European Commission urging countries to open up essential links with Britain is likely to put pressure on members to relax entry bans, though several countries continued to head into the opposite direction on Tuesday.

Hungary banned passenger planes from the U.K. until early February, while Germany and Ireland extended their entry restrictions.

The French ban imposed Sunday night, with an initial 48-hour timeframe, did not ban travel into Britain, but flows in that direction were nevertheless severely hampered, as few companies appeared willing to take the risk of leaving their drivers stranded in the U.K. and unable to return to Europe over Christmas.

France intended to announce new rules on travel with the U.K. before its 48-hour emergency measures expired later on Tuesday, the BBC quoted the French Europe Minister Clément Beaune as saying.

France’s public broadcaster France Info reported that truck drivers and French nationals or residents stuck in the United Kingdom may be allowed to travel back to the country if they can provide a negative coronavirus test result.

But it remained unclear how quickly any arrangement could resolve the truck pileups at Britain’s southern ports, where thousands of lorries were waiting for permission to enter France.

A French official told The Washington Post that French citizens and Britons living in France would need negative PCR tests to return. But PCR test results can take days to arrive, meaning there might still be significant disruptions in cross-border traffic if France insisted on that method for truck drivers, too.

Sky News reported that rapid turnaround tests could be an alternative and that the British military was prepared to help conducting them.

In its statement on Tuesday, the European Commission hinted at such a solution, saying that “where a Member State, in the specific context of the situation between the EU and the UK and in the coming days, requires rapid antigen tests for transport workers, this should not lead to transport disruptions.”

Noack reported from Berlin. Quentin Ariès in Brussels, Antonia Noori Farzan in Washington, and Miriam Berger in Durham, N.C. contributed to this report.

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