France on Tuesday announced a limited re-opening, starting on Wednesday, for traffic coming via ferry, train and tunnel, but only for E.U. citizens and Britons living in the E.U. — and only if they provide a negative coronavirus test from the previous 72 hours.
France and Britain continued to haggle over when and how to restart the flow of trade.
British Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said stranded truck drivers would start getting coronavirus tests on Wednesday, Reuters reported, so they could — eventually — cross over to France.
“We’ll be making sure that tomorrow we’re out there, providing tests,” Shapps said. “This will take two or three days for things to be cleared.”
The leader of Kent County Council in southeast England told the BBC on Tuesday there were 3,000 trucks waiting to cross the English Channel. On Monday, British government officials claimed there were only 170.
Drivers honked their horns in frustration, as some prepared to sleep for a third night in their cabs.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has promised his country that a newly sovereign, free-trading, swash-buckling “Global Britain” will soar after Brexit, coming in less than 9 days.
But with no free trade deal signed between Britain and the European Union, and ferries and the channel tunnel frozen at the gateway to continental Europe, Britons suddenly found themselves more isolated than ever.
Added to the sense of loneliness, after saying that it would be “inhumane” to cancel Christmas gatherings of friends and family, Johnson felt compelled to do just that on Sunday, based on advice from his public health advisers, who see cases of the coronavirus soaring here.
More than 18 million Britons are now in “Tier 4” lockdown, with all nonessential shops, pubs, restaurants, gyms, hair salons, theaters and toy stores closed.
Anthony Fauci, America’s top infectious disease official, told the BBC on Tuesday he thought a total U.S. ban on arrivals from Britain “might be a bit of an overreaction.”
The European Commission on Tuesday sought to promote a more coordinated approach after different levels of restrictions were announced haphazardly over the previous days.
It urged all 27 member states to end bans on flights and trains from Britain and to reopen freight routes. “All non-essential travel to and from the UK should be discouraged,” the E.U.’s executive arm said, but “flight and train bans should be discontinued given the need to ensure essential travel and avoid supply chain disruptions,” including the delivery of coronavirus vaccines.
But several countries continued to head into the opposite direction on Tuesday. Hungary banned passenger planes from the U.K. until early February, while Germany and Ireland extended their entry restrictions.
The tussle over travel and trade came as scientists in Britain and around the world scrambled to assess the impact of the new mutation of coronavirus, first spotted in England.
Sharon Peacock, the director of the U.K. consortium tracking mutations of the virus, said Tuesday, “we have no evidence that the vaccine is in any way compromised by this new variant.”
Judith Breuer, professor of virology at Univeristy College London, said the observed rise in the prevlance of the variant strongly suggests the new mutation is driving increased transmission.
Breuer said that in coming weeks, researchers will be able to see if the greater spread of the variant leads to more serious illness, an observaton that might be captured by a spike in hospitalization and death. So far, she said, there has been no evidence to show the mutation is more deadly.
The developer of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine said Tuesday that his company’s inoculation is likely to be effective against the new variant identified in Britain, but that a new version of his vaccine could be developed within six weeks if necessary.
Whether regulators would be willing to quickly approve a slightly modified version of the vaccine that has been cleared for distribution in the United States, Britain and European Union is another story, CEO Ugur Sahin told reporters at a news conference.
But from a technical perspective, tweaking the vaccine produced in partnership with Pfizer would simply be a matter of replacing one mutation with another while the “messenger” molecule remained the same.
But he added that it would take roughly two weeks for scientists to conduct enough tests and collect enough data to say for sure.
“The likelihood that our vaccine will work is relatively high,” Sahin said, noting that 99 percent of proteins found in the new mutation are the same as in other strains.
The French restrictions imposed Sunday night, with an initial 48-hour timeframe, did not ban freight coming into Britain, but flows in that direction were nevertheless severely hampered, as few companies appeared willing to take the risk of leaving their drivers stranded in the U.K. and unable to return to Europe over Christmas.
As of Tuesday evening, it remained unclear how quickly any arrangement could resolve the truck pileups at Britain’s southern ports.
PCR test results for the coronavirus can take days to arrive, meaning there might still be significant disruptions in cross-border traffic if France insisted on that method for truck drivers, too.
Sky News reported that rapid turnaround tests could be an alternative and that the British military was prepared to help administer them.
In its statement on Tuesday, the European Commission hinted at such a solution, saying that “where a Member State, in the specific context of the situation between the EU and the UK and in the coming days, requires rapid antigen tests for transport workers, this should not lead to transport disruptions.”
Noack reported from Berlin. Quentin Ariès in Brussels, Antonia Noori Farzan in Washington, and Miriam Berger in Durham, N.C. contributed to this report.