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VOL. 44 | NO. 51 | Friday, December 18, 2020

Britain finds itself isolated over new version of the virus

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LONDON (AP) — Over 2,800 stranded truck drivers hoped to get the green light Tuesday to leave Britain and get back home for Christmas as the country found itself increasingly isolated and its trade bottled up, cut off by neighbors afraid of a new version of the coronavirus circulating in England.

More than 630 trucks snaked along a major highway in southeast England near the English Channel ports, while almost 2,200 others crowded into an unused airport on Day 2 of an ordeal that began when dozens of nations banned flights from the U.K. and France barred entry to its trucks.

France's prime minister said Tuesday evening that he expected a solution to the standoff in a matter of hours.

The precautions that France and others imposed were prompted by a new variant of the virus that is believed to be more contagious, though experts say it does not appear to be more deadly or vaccine-resistant. A similar one has emerged in South Africa.

On an island nation that relies heavily on its commercial links to the continent, the travel bans stoked fears of Christmastime food shortages.

At the same time, Britain is witnessing an alarming rise in infections, with a record 36,800 reported on Tuesday, and is facing deep uncertainty over its final exit from the European Union in less than two weeks. Despite the looming deadline, the country has yet to work out its  post-Brexit trade arrangements with the EU.

"What is so bad to me, is not just this new mutation, but the fact that we have been so bad at dealing with the pandemic, and it now looks like we're heading for what's called a perfect storm with the mutation 70% more infectious and Brexit all at the same time," said 73-year-old Jim Gibson of London.

"People are really struggling to get their heads round one of these, let alone both — and now we're being told we may have eaten our last lettuce for three months, too, probably."

For the drivers, it has been a grim couple of days, with some complaining about the lack of toilet facilities and food.

"My family is waiting for me, my children, my daughter, my son, my wife," said Greg Mazurek of Poland. "It was supposed to be a very quick trip, three to four days max. I spent in the U.K. 10 minutes in the gas station and 20 minutes unloading, and now I need to wait two days here in the port in Dover."

Drivers held out hope their ordeal might end within hours. The prospects seemed to improve Tuesday when the EU's executive arm recommended a lifting of the bans and French Prime Minister Jean Castex announced France would allow EU travelers, along with British citizens with EU residency, back into the country if they had a negative virus test in the preceding 72 hours.

Castex said no decision had been made yet on cargo traffic but that he expected a solution "in the coming hours." Britain's transport secretary, Grant Shapps, said "good progress" had been made in discussions with French authorities.

British retailers have become increasingly concerned about the blockage at the ports, given that 10,000 trucks pass through Dover every day, accounting for about 20% of the country's trade in goods.

Andrew Opie, director of food and sustainability at the British Retail Consortium, warned of potential shortages of fresh vegetables and fruit after Christmas if the borders are not "running pretty much freely" by Wednesday.

The problem, he explained, is that the empty trucks sitting in England can't reach the continent to pick up deliveries for Britain.

"They need to get back to places like Spain to pick up the next consignment of raspberries and strawberries, and they need to get back within the next day or so, otherwise we will see disruption," he said.

The virus is blamed for 1.7 million deaths worldwide, including more than 68,000 in Britain, the second-highest death toll in Europe, behind Italy's 69,000.

Over the weekend, Prime Minister Boris Johnson imposed strict lockdown measures in London and neighboring areas amid mounting concerns over the new variant. He  scrapped a planned relaxation of rules over Christmastime for millions of people and banned indoor mixing of households. Only essential travel will be permitted.

In Switzerland, meanwhile, authorities are trying to track an estimated 10,000 people who have arrived by plane from Britain since Dec. 14, and has ordered them to quarantine for 10 days. Switzerland was one of the 40-odd countries to ban flights from Britain over the new variant.

The quarantine order is likely to affect thousands of Britons who may have already headed to Swiss ski resorts. Unlike many of its neighbors, Switzerland has left most of its slopes open, attracting enthusiasts from around Europe.

"Do not leave your room or residence and avoid all contacts," Switzerland's public health agency urged vacationing Britons and South Africans. It warned they face potential fines of 10,000 Swiss francs ($11,250).

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Jo Kearney in Dover, Lorne Cook in Brussels and Frank Jordans in Berlin contributed to this report.

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Follow AP coverage of the virus outbreak at https://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak.

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