U.K. Braces for Possible Shortages as France Closes Border to Block New Coronavirus Strain

Date: Wednesday, December 23, 2020
Source: Wall Street Journal

FOLKESTONE, England—A line of trucks stretched for miles back from the entrance to the Channel tunnel here Monday, as the U.K. braced for potential food shortages and manufacturers worried over more disruptions if France continued a ban on freight and passenger traffic from Britain to stop the spread of a new strain of the coronavirus.

The move to bar entry from the U.K., announced by Paris late Sunday, cuts off Britain’s main freight link to Europe, shutting down trade between ports like Dover and Calais that handle up to 10,000 trucks a day.

Eurotunnel, which operates the railway tunnel connecting Britain and France, also halted all freight and passenger services. The U.K. was already grappling with a higher traffic volume for the Christmas period and its pending departure from the European Union customs union on Jan. 1.

The shutdown has added a new dimension to the complexities the pandemic presents to commerce. While various countries have placed certain restrictions on travel from Britain and elsewhere—such as mandatory quarantines—freight had always been allowed to move freely in and out of the U.K., until Sunday evening.

Mike Sellar, a truck driver from Kent, England, was due to travel out of Dover Monday night to pick up rice cakes from Brussels but believes he now won’t be making another trip until after Christmas.

“It’s a complete joke,” he said.

The travel ban, initially set for 48 hours, came as a host of nations, including Germany, Canada and Denmark, barred passengers from Britain after U.K. officials said a new, more transmissible strain of coronavirus was responsible for a surge in cases in London and southeast England.

In the U.S., New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo asked that airlines flying from the U.K. test passengers before they board, adding that British Airways and Delta Air Lines had agreed. Delta said its passengers would have to take a swab test 72 hours before departure.

Already, Denmark, the Netherlands and Belgium have confirmed a small number of cases of the new coronavirus strain, which scientists believe could be as much as 70% more transmissible than established strains.

Officials from European countries convened Monday to discuss how to respond, while British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Monday that the delays affect around a fifth of the freight moving between the U.K. and Europe.

“We in the U.K. fully understand the anxiety of our friends about Covid, their anxiety about the new variant,” he said. Mr. Johnson added that he had spoken by phone with French President Emmanuel Macron and was hopeful the restrictions would ease, saying most food, medicines and other supplies were coming and going as normal.

Grant Shapps, the U.K. transport minister, said that as of Monday evening, there were around 170 trucks parked on the highway leading to the docks, down from 500 on Sunday night.

Travel suspensions have the potential to disrupt Christmas fresh food supplies, said Ian Wright, chief executive of British trade group the Food & Drink Federation. “ Continental truckers will not want to travel here if they have a real fear of getting marooned,” he said.

J Sainsbury PLC, the U.K.’s second-largest grocery chain, said there could be shortages of lettuce, some vegetables and citrus fruit in the coming days if a solution can’t be reached.

Other companies worried about getting produce to clients on the other side of the English Channel.

“This is a disaster…trucks loaded with hundreds of thousands of pounds [of shellfish] heading to Dover right now,” Loch Fyne Seafarms Ltd., a Scottish seafood firm, tweeted in the wake of the freight ban.

Delays at ports could also affect manufacturers that rely on so-called just-in-time supply chains, where the arrival of parts is coordinated closely with assembly.

Toyota Motor Corp., for instance, has been used to holding just four hours of parts at its U.K. car plant and relied on 50 trucks entering Britain each day to build its cars. A three-week strike by French ferry staff in 2015 disrupted Toyota’s supply for two months, the company has previously told lawmakers.

Jack Semple, secretary of U.K. trade group the Engineering and Machinery Alliance, said many manufacturers have stockpiles but that supply chains are so integrated with the rest of Europe that the current disruption is a concern.

“That concern will escalate rapidly if people thought this will go on for longer than 48 hours,” he said.

Nerves were already on edge in Folkestone.

Christian Firdula, a 38-year-old trucker from Romania, said he planned to sleep in his truck overnight after delivering a shipment of chicken. He would be parked in a line of trucks on the side of the highway leading to the port, next to open fields with no access to bathrooms or food services. He said he had enough food to last one or two days. After that, he was unsure what he would do.

“It’s a problem,” Mr. Firdula said, shrugging.

Biser Georgiev, a 37-year-old construction worker from Bulgaria, sat in his van just outside the entrance to the Channel Tunnel. He said he packed up his home in Buckinghamshire and was planning to move back to Bulgaria for good, where he would reunite with his family. He found out that the border was closed when he was already driving south to the tunnel.

“I have a 6-year-old daughter. Tell me if she will be happy,” he said.

Many of those stuck on the road worried that Sunday’s shutdown could portend further disruptions once Britain leaves the EU customs union.

A poll of British haulers released Monday by the Haulage Exchange, which matches cargoes and drivers, found that 96% of those asked said they weren’t ready for the transition and needed further clarity on what border legislation will be. The U.K. and EU are currently negotiating a potential trade deal but the outcome is uncertain.

“I brought in a container of flowers and lettuce from the Netherlands…but I can’t get on a ferry for the drive back,” said Dutch trucker Arend De Vriess, who is stuck 2 miles outside Dover. “Covid will eventually be dealt with, but the jams will continue if there is no deal with Brexit.”

 

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