Evening Standard

EU calls for end to UK travel ban despite Covid variant fears

Brussels has called for an end to Europe’s sweeping travel bans on the UK sparked by fears of the new mutant strain of the coronavirus.

The European Commission issued a statement on Tuesday saying that while travel to and from the EU should be “discouraged” bans on movement should be lifted.

It acknowledged that “precautions are needed” to contain the spread of the variant, but said “blanket travel bans should not prevent thousands of EU and UK citizens from returning to their homes”.

More than 40 countries have banned flights from the UK due to the highly contagious Covid mutation.

The most dramatic action has come from France, which closed its border to lorries crossing the Channel, leading to more than 1,500 HGVs being trapped in Kent.

The EU-wide approach recommended by the commission would allow essential travel, and transit of passengers should be facilitated.

Flight and train bans “should be discontinued given the need to ensure essential travel and avoid supply chain disruptions”, the commission said.

EU justice commissioner Didier Reynders said “member states should take co-ordinated action to discourage non-essential travel between the UK and the EU”.

But “at the same time, blanket travel bans should not prevent thousands of EU and UK citizens from returning to their homes”.

Transport commissioner Adina Valean said: “Within the EU, it is crucial that transport workers are exempted from any restrictive measures.”

Talks between the UK and France to resolve the crisis at the Channel have included discussions on testing HGV drivers.

The EU’s recommendation suggested rapid tests should be used to avoid disruption.

Home Secretary Priti Patel said the Government is “speaking constantly” with France to achieve a resolution “in both our interests” to get freight moving again.

But she defended the Government’s handling of the pandemic, insisting ministers had been “ahead of the curve” in tackling coronavirus.

Andrew Opie, director of food and sustainability at the British Retail Consortium, said the “borders really need to be running pretty much freely from tomorrow to assure us that there won’t be any disruption”.

He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “There is a problem potentially directly after Christmas and that is really in fresh produce, so we’re talking here about things like salad, vegetables, fresh fruit, of which the vast majority come from Europe at this time.”

The main problem was empty lorries stuck in Kent unable to head over to the continent to reload with fresh supplies, he said.

Ms Patel told Sky News that talks would continue with France because “it’s in both our interests to carry on those discussions and negotiations and we will see what materialises today”.

The Home Secretary defended the response of ministers, telling BBC Radio 4’s Today: “The Government has consistently throughout this year been ahead of the curve in terms of proactive measures with regards to coronavirus.”

She said that although 20 per cent of goods come through the short straits, “there is plenty of food in the supermarkets”.

She added: “We have fresh produce come in through other routes as well, through air freight and not just through the short straits, so I think we have to just take a balanced approach to this.”

Rod McKenzie, managing director of the Road Haulage Association, told BBC Breakfast that stranded drivers had been offered “one cereal bar” by Kent County Council on Monday “which is a pretty poor effort, I think in terms of maintaining their morale, and their spirits”.

Mr McKenzie said toilet facilities were also a “big issue” with concerns over health and cleanliness.

The World Health Organisation’s European chief Hans Kluge said limiting travel to contain the spread of the new variant was “prudent” until there was more information.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson spoke to French President Emmanuel Macron on Monday and stressed that the risks of transmission posed by a “solitary driver sitting alone in the cab are really very low”.

But he said the supply chains for “essential goods” and essential travel “should remain possible”.

The M20 in Kent was closed on Monday night to allow for the implementation of Operation Brock – contingency measures which involve using a moveable barrier to keep traffic moving on the motorway whenever there is disruption at the Channel.

Meanwhile, scientific advisers continued to press the case for tougher restrictions in response to the VUI 202012/1 variant, which is 70 per cent more infectious than previous strains.

The Government’s chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, said tougher restrictions may be needed across the UK because cases of the mutant strain of Covid-19 are now appearing “everywhere”.

Genomic researchers have since confirmed that cases of the mutation have been identified in Scotland and Wales.

The Covid-19 Genomics UK (COG-UK) consortium sampled cases around the UK and found the variant is also in the South West, Midlands and North of England, areas that are under Tier 2 and 3 restrictions.

Jeffrey Barrett, lead Covid-19 statistical geneticist at COG-UK, warned there was a lag in the sequence data being sampled, so the most recent data was from the first week of December when England came out of the second national lockdown.

At a Science Media Centre briefing on Tuesday, he said: “They’re relatively small numbers but I think it is important to be aware that it is certainly not the case that this is just completely geographically constrained to what is the current Tier 4 area.”

The new variant led to London and parts of southern and eastern England being rushed into the new Tier 4 regime at the weekend, effectively cancelling Christmas plans and imposing measures similar to previous national lockdowns.

Dr Barrett said more up-to-date data from community testing also found one of the mutations of this variant.

He said: “It shows essentially the same picture, that the variant is present in very many different places in England.

“It is certainly not isolated in one place, it has begun to spread to many places in England.”

Professor Tom Connor, a genomics expert from Cardiff University, told the briefing that sequencing data shows cases around the UK, including Wales and Scotland.

He said it was no surprise that a new variant hd been found in countries – including the UK, Denmark and the Netherlands – which have mature sequencing systems set up, and he believed similar variants will pop up around the world.

Prof Connor said Wales had sequenced more viruses in the past week than the whole of France during the entire pandemic.

Ravindra Gupta, professor of clinical microbiology at the University of Cambridge, said there was no evidence to suggest the new variant caused higher mortality, and no reason to believe the vaccine being rolled out in the UK will not be effective.

However, Prof Connor warned not enough time has passed to know whether the variant leads to a worse outcome for infected people.

He said: “When you’re talking about outcome you’re normally looking at 28 days after the person has been diagnosed – with a lot of these cases popping up in late December we’re not at that point where you would have that outcome information to do that analysis yet.”

Prof Gupta said the majority of people who contract Covid-19 recover, adding: “There isn’t really, in my mind, a huge rationale for thinking there’s going to be a worse outcome (with the new variant).”

Dr Barrett said 23 mutations of the virus were detected “all at once”, which is rare, suggesting it did not happen by coincidence.

He said: “It suggests that something happened – we don’t know what that something is, that produced this variant, and it doesn’t happen that often because we haven’t seen it before.

“I think the conjunction of very rapid spread and a lot of mutations makes this less and less likely to be just a coincidence.”

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