As dozens of countries around the world closed their borders to travellers from the UK, Boris Johnson was engaged in a frantic diplomatic bid to persuade France to reopen cross-Channel routes for vital freight transport.
Flights were grounded and ferry services halted in response to the discovery of a virulent new strain of Covid-19 in the UK, causing queues of lorries stretching miles from the port of Dover and the Eurotunnel terminal in Folkestone.
Sainsbury’s said that supermarkets could soon run out of fresh goods like citrus fruits, salads, cauliflowers and broccoli, though other Christmas items have been stockpiled and should not run short.
Chief scientist Sir Patrick Vallance warned that tighter coronavirus restrictions will be needed as the mutant virus, which is believed to be 70 per cent more infective than the original strain, spreads around the UK.
He warned that new self-isolation orders in Greater Manchester and the West Midlands for visitors arriving from tier 4 areas like London and Wales would not be enough to prevent the coronavirus variant from reaching them.
As cross-Channel traffic remained at a standstill in Dover, the prime minister said that British and French officials were working “to unblock the flow of trade as fast as possible”.
He said that Emmanuel Macron, the French president, had told him in a phone call that he was keen to resolve the situation within hours “if we can”.
But by Monday evening there was no sign of the new EU health protocol which Mr Macron’s transport minister Jean-Baptiste Djebbari had suggested as a means to restart movement of lorries heading for the continent.
A meeting of EU experts agreed on the importance of keeping border crossings within the 27-nation bloc open but requested further guidance from the European Commission before taking any decision.
After peaking at around 500 in the hours after France imposed a 48-hour block on movements by vehicles from the UK late on Sunday, transport minister Grant Shapps said that the number of trucks queueing on the motorway outside Dover had been reduced to 174 by Monday afternoon.
Many of them were EU national drivers attempting to return to their home countries, he said.
At a Downing Street press conference, Mr Johnson stressed that only 20 per cent of UK food imports from the continent arrived in lorries, with the rest travelling in containers which are not impacted by the French decision.
The “vast majority” of food, medicines and other supplies – including consignments of the Pfizer coronavirus vaccine – were “coming and going as normal”, he said.
The PM said he was assuring fellow leaders that “the risk of transmission by a solitary driver sitting alone in the cab are really very low” and hoped to make progress on restarting transport movements “as fast as we possibly can”.
The government is also considering plans to introduce the mass testing of lorry drivers in a bid to reopen ports, according to reports.
Ministers are drawing up plans to increase testing capacity in Kent in order to clear thousands of lorry drivers to cross into France, the Telegraph said.
Labour has also called for any spare capacity in the testing system to be used to help solve the “chaos” at the border.
More than 40 countries worldwide have imposed restrictions on travel from the UK. The Republic of Ireland has banned visits from the British mainland, while continuing to allow entry from Northern Ireland.
Italy, Spain, Sweden, Pakistan and Iran were among the countries announcing restrictions on arrivals from Britain, while Andrew Cuomo, the governor of New York, said he has asked airlines flying into the state from the UK to make all passengers take a coronavirus test before they get on the plane.
Meanwhile, public health officers in Greater Manchester and the West Midlands issued orders for anyone coming from Wales or from tier 4 areas in the southeast of England to self-isolate for 10 days after arrival.
Tameside’s Jeanelle de Gruchy said anyone arriving from the worst-affected areas should “act as if they have this new variant, even if they have no symptoms”, and no other visitors should be allowed into the house where they are staying, even on Christmas Day.
But Sir Patrick told the Downing Street press conference: “The new variant is spread around the country. It’s localised in some places but we know there are cases everywhere, so it’s not as though we can stop this getting into other places, there’s some there already.”
The chief scientific adviser warned that further restrictions were on their way for some of the regions which evaded Mr Johnson’s order on Saturday for non-essential shops in tier 4 areas to shut and residents to stay at home.
Lorries queue near Dover as France closes border to UK
“The evidence of this virus is it spreads easily, it’s more transmissible,” said Sir Patrick. “We absolutely need to make sure we’ve got the right level of restrictions in place.
“I think it is likely that this will grow in numbers of the variant across the country. And I think it’s likely therefore that measures will need to be need to be increased in some places in due course, not reduced.”
Official figures recorded 33,364 new positive cases and a further 215 deaths on Monday, bringing the total toll from the pandemic to 67,616.
Some eight areas of the UK now have rates of Covid-19 infection higher than 1,000 per 100,000 population. The list is headed by Merthyr Tydfil (1,300), followed by Bridgend, Blaenau Gwent, Thurrock in Essex, Havering in east London, Epping Forest, Basildon, and Medway in north Kent.
Mr Johnson hailed the news that 500,000 people in the UK have now been vaccinated against Covid-19 as “a reason for hope, and for confidence”. But he resisted calls for vaccinations to be focused on tier 4 areas in the hope of halting the spread of the new variant. And he held back from guaranteeing that schools will reopen as planned in January.
Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner tweeted: “The government is telling the public that the second Covid strain – which is more infectious – is already in every part of the country and further restrictions will be needed.
“So why has Boris Johnson not acted? We already know the tier system does not control infections.”
Liberal Democrat leader Sir Ed Davey said: “Boris Johnson is failing to tell the truth about the scale of the domestic crisis caused by the new Covid strain, failing to set out his plans to support the vulnerable and business in this new stage of the health crisis, and failing to reassure he has a grip on all this.
“People will have watched the PM’s press conference and be wondering whether in a few days’ time he will be forced to announce a national lockdown and admit Dover has descended into chaos.”
The prime minister defended himself against the charge that he had overpromised and underdelivered throughout the pandemic.
“It is very important to be as realistic as we possibly can,” he said.
“I don’t think anybody would want to have seen this country spend this last year in a total lockdown. We have had to do what we can to keep our economy moving.”