PM chairs Cobra meeting as Europe isolates UK over new Covid strain

Former chief scientific adviser says government needs to accelerate plans for a new nationwide lockdown
Boris Johnson PA

By Alain Tolhurst

21 Dec 2020

Boris Johnson today presided over an emergency Cobra meeting after much of mainland Europe cut off the UK because of fears about the spread of a virulent new coronavirus strain.

The prime minister convened the government's civil contingencies committee to deal with the growing crisis at the border with France following yesterday’s decision by Paris to suspend all traffic for 48 hours.

Hauliers have been urged to stay away from the Channel ports in Kent after warnings of "significant disruption" in the run-up to Christmas and the end of the Brexit transition period on December 31.

Kent Police have implemented Operation Stack, which sees one carriageway of the M20 used to queue up lorries on the way to the coast, while Manston Airport is being prepared for use as a freight park if the disruption continues.

More than £33bn was wiped off the FTSE 100 within minutes of opening this morning as markets tumbled in response to the news most European countries, along with several others around the world, are prohibiting travel from the UK.

Supermarket giant Sainsbury’s said there could be shortages of some fruit and vegetables because of the border restrictions.

The latest developments come after the PM cancelled much of the planned relaxation of Covid restrictions for the festive period because of evidence the highly infectious new strain of the virus is widespread across south-east England.

Transport secretary Grant Shapps told Sky News that France’s ban on freight hauliers seeking to enter from the UK was “slightly surprising”, but claimed the disruption was not a “specific problem” in the short term.

“The Kent Dover-to-Calais Eurotunnel, what we call the short straits, is probably about 20% of goods going to and from, in and out of the country,” he said.

“But it's not the mainstay. Most goods actually come in and out by unaccompanied containers and those will continue to flow.”

Shapps claimed the public would not “for the most part” notice any shortages at supermarkets as a result of France's freight lorry ban, saying hauliers were "quite used to anticipating disruption”.

He added: “It's not really in anybody's particular interest to not have hauliers going across, not least because they are mostly European hauliers and the goods are mostly theirs, so they will not want them perishing any more than we would want the border closed.”

Former chief scientific adviser Sir David King told Sky News there was now “only one course of action” to deal with the new strain of coronavirus, and that was for the UK’s restrictions to be tightened even further. 

“I think there's no doubt about it – we need to go into lockdown and we need to go into lockdown sooner than the government is tending to do,” he said. 

King, who was the government’s chief scientific adviser from 2000-2007, said it was important to act quickly as possible to stop a surge in infections, and that he believed the new variant was “almost certainly” spreading across the country already.

Alain Tolhurst is chief reporter of CSW's sister title PoliticsHome,  where a version of this story first appeared.  Additional reporting by Jim Dunton

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