Nations close UK travel links over virus strain fears
The list of nations refusing entry to travelers from the United Kingdom grew on Monday as concern mounted about a new strain of the novel coronavirus that has a foothold in the London area.
The strain, which is thought to affect people in much the same way as the main strain but to be far easier to catch, prompted the British government to introduce strict lockdowns throughout the Southeast on the weekend.
By Monday lunchtime the BBC said around 30 nations had barred arrivals from the UK; including Austria, Belgium, Canada, France, Finland, Germany, the Netherlands, India, Ireland, Italy, Poland, Switzerland, and Turkey.
The more infectious virus strain was also causing chaos for freight traffic, with massive tailbacks of trucks blighting approaches to the Port of Dover.
Grant Shapps, the UK's transport secretary, insisted goods could continue to arrive in the UK from mainland Europe, and the Financial Times quoted him urging France to reverse its decision to ban drivers arriving from Britain.
"They're actually the least likely people to pick up the virus and that's why other countries haven't banned the haulers as it's actually a pretty solitary profession," he said.
The British Retail Consortium said, though, that Britain could be hit by shortages.
"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," the organization said.
The border chaos ensued after French officials ordered a 48-hour suspension of cross-Channel ferry freight on Sunday. The rail tunnel linking the UK and France was also closed.
France said it wanted to give the European Union time to develop a wider, coordinated response and the French government said on Monday it would establish a protocol "to ensure movement from the UK can resume".
The EU's crisis response committee met on Monday to discuss the situation, as did the UK's Cabinet.
However, despite efforts to keep the new strain isolated within Great Britain, infections have been found in Denmark and Italy, and as far away as Australia. The Netherlands said it may have even had a case in early December.
The Guardian newspaper said Prime Minister Boris Johnson chaired a meeting of the Civil Contingencies Committee, which is known as the Cobra committee, on Monday to discuss the freight disruption.
A spokesperson for the prime minister said he wants to guarantee "the steady flow of freight into and out of the UK".
Scientists meanwhile are trying to understand the new strain, which has been named B.1.1.7. The World Health Organization and the UK authorities are working closely on the issue and believe vaccines will work on the strain, which is thought to be 70 percent easier to catch than the main strain.
The Guardian newspaper quoted Jeff rey Barrett, director of the Covid Genomics Initiative at the Wellcome Sanger Institute, as saying: "This new variant is very concerning, and is unlike anything we have seen so far in the pandemic."
But he noted the strain could already be widespread in other parts of the world where testing is less sophisticated than it is in the UK.
Against the torrent of bad news, there was also some good news on Monday, with the release of a new survey from Lloyds Bank that shows businesses had their largest improvement in confidence in more than four years during December.
The optimism was due to the development of vaccines that are expected to make possible a major economic recovery during 2021.
The Reuters news agency quoted Lloyds economist Hann-Ju Ho as saying the 17-percentage-point rise in the monthly business barometer was most welcome.
"The news of the vaccine progress has bolstered this month's confidence figures, more than off setting uncertainties around the UK's new trading relationship with the EU," Ho said.
A survey conducted by market research company GfK told a similar story among households, showing the wider population was also more confident about the future.
The Bank of England has said the UK economy will likely shrink by 11 percent this year but start to bounce back quickly in 2021.
However, both surveys were conducted before the emergence of the more virulent strain of the virus and before strict new lockdowns were imposed.
With hopes of a recovery pinned on vaccines, much is being made of the prospect of large numbers of people refusing the vaccine and threatening its overall efficacy.
Deutsche Welle, the German state-owned broadcaster, said a German geneticist had become so alarmed about the number of people reporting they will turn down an offer of a vaccination that he suggested those who refuse it should also refuse intensive care treatment if they become seriously ill.
Wolfram Henn, a geneticist and member of Germany's Ethics Council, told Bild newspaper: "Whoever wants to refuse the vaccination outright, he should, please also always carry a document with the inscription: 'I don't want to be vaccinated! I want to leave the protection against the disease to others! I want, if I get sick, to leave my intensive care bed and ventilator to others.'"