Brexit and coronavirus combine to disable logistics

London, UK: Brexit and coronavirus have combined to deliver a savage blow to the UK’s logistics industry threatening massive disruption on a scale never seen before.

Brexit negotiations have stalled and missed the EU parliaments deadline for scrutiny meaning even if there is agreement between the UK and EU there could be weeks of delay until any deal can be implemented.

But, more serious, is the mutation of the coronavirus into a far more infectious form. Matt Hancock, secretary of state for health, said on Sunday that Britain faces a “very difficult” few months, warning that the spread of the virus across swathes of England is now “out of control”.

Tier 4 restrictions could be toughened further and remain in place until close to Easter, government sources say. Ministers believe at least 20 million people will need to have been vaccinated against coronavirus before any significant relaxing of the measures can be considered.

On Sunday, daily cases in the UK were the highest on record, with 35,928 cases – a jump of 51% in one week, fuelled by the more infectious mutation.

Hancock said it was impossible to rule out even stronger restrictions – such as a full national lockdown, but stressed that ministers were keen to keep to the “tiered” approach if possible.

Britain now faces a travel ban by a host of countries trying to halt the spread of the new strain of the virus. A ban on passenger flights and freight transport from the UK has been imposed by France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany and Ireland. Further afield, Israel, Canada, Chile and Argentina are joining.

The French ban is for 48 hours and most countries have followed with similar periods. However, it is expected that Ireland will increase the duration when its cabinet meet today.

The Road Haulage Association warned that plans by France alone to shut its border to accompanied freight for at least 48 hours threatened “enormous disruption” to vital food and trade supplies.

Rod McKenzie, RHA director of policy, said that even though France would allow freight to leave for the UK, lorries would not be able to return. 

“Trade is a two-way street, what goes out, comes back and visa versa. So any disruption to free-flowing goods at this time of year will have severe consequences,” he said.

The Port of Dover on Sunday night said it would close to traffic leaving the UK “until further notice”. On Sunday night, the government warned hauliers to avoid traveling to Kent ports due to “significant disruption”.

Grant Shapps, transport secretary, said: “We’re asking the public and particularly hauliers not to travel to Kent ports or other routes to France.” He said the Department for Transport was urgently working with Kent Resilience Forum, Highways England and Kent council on contingency measures to “minimise traffic disruption” in the area.

Kent Police said “Operation Stack was now being implemented between Junctions 8 and 11 of the M20 coastbound carriageway”. 

The Department of Health said it had contingency plans in place to airlift the Pfizer vaccines from Belgium using military aircraft if the ban stayed in place for longer than 48 hours.

Ian Wright, head of the Food and Drink Federation, said: “The suspension of accompanied freight traffic from the UK to France has the potential to cause serious disruption to Christmas fresh food supplies and exports of UK food and drink.”

France said on Sunday it would halt all travel from Britain for 48 hours from midnight on Sunday including journeys “related to goods transport by road, air, sea or rail”. The ban on all but unaccompanied freight comes as companies scramble to shift merchandise across the Channel with days to go until Britain finally quits EU trade structures. Prime Minister Jean Castex’s office said the 48-hour period would offer time to coordinate a joint EU response that would ultimately allow travel from the UK to resume “with compulsory testing on departure”.

Netherlands, Belgium, Austria, Sweden, Finland, Switzerland, Germany, Italy and Ireland have announced similar measures although Germany will exempt cargo flights.

Huw Merriman, chairman of the transport select committee, said the situation at the border with France was “very alarming” and that “urgent resolution” was needed.

Andrew Opie, of the British Retail Consortium, urged the government and the EU to find a “pragmatic solution” and said that the closure would create difficulties for Britain’s capacity to import and export “key goods during the busy Christmas period”. 

He said: “While goods can enter from France, few haulage firms will be willing to send trucks and drivers across to the UK without a guarantee they can return to the EU in a timely manner.

“This is a key supply route for fresh produce at this time of year: the Channel crossings see 10,000 trucks passing daily during peak periods such as in the run up to Christmas.”

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