France expected to lift U.K. blockade, as negotiations stall over COVID-19 testing

France expected to lift U.K. blockade, as negotiations stall over COVID-19 testing

France is expected to lift its blockade of the U.K. on Tuesday evening, as officials in Paris and London remained locked in talks over how to safely open the border amid the threat of a new, more contagious strain of coronavirus.

Lifting the blockade, even in a limited manner, would open up one of Europe’s most important trade routes and ease fears of food and medicine shortages in the run-up to Christmas.

The French border to the U.K. was closed for 48 hours starting on Sunday night, as the threat of a new and more infectious strain of coronavirus originating in the U.K. swept across Europe and prompted many new travel restrictions.

A deal on the border is imminent but not guaranteed, with negotiations stalled over the details of how essential workers like truck drivers should be tested, according to media reports, with French citizens expected to be allowed to return home.

Essential reading: A New Covid-19 Strain Is Shutting Down Europe. What You Need to Know.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced on Saturday evening that a mutated variant of the coronavirus that was 70% more contagious was behind a recent spike in COVID-19 cases. The U.K. reported a record 36,804 new infections on Tuesday.

By Tuesday, more than 50 countries around the world had banned arrivals from the U.K., and France had blocked all inbound trade from England through the Eurotunnel and across the English Channel.

More: Europe is pushing ahead with COVID-19 vaccine rollout as a new and more infectious coronavirus strain closes borders

The Strait of Dover between England and France is one of the busiest maritime routes in the world, with up to 10,000 trucks shuttled across the 31-mile passage between Dover and Calais each day.

A halt to trade set off fears of critical shortages of food in the busy Christmas period, with grocers warning that shoppers could face empty shelves if the blockade continued beyond 48 hours. The chief concern is that French truck drivers would not travel to the U.K. with their goods if there was no way for them to return home.

Also read: Shoppers could face shortages of fruit and vegetables after France closes border to U.K. over mutant coronavirus

Sainsbury’s, the U.K.’s third-largest grocer, warned on Monday that “if nothing changes, we will start to see gaps over the coming days on lettuce, some salad leaves, cauliflowers, broccoli and citrus fruit—all of which are imported from the Continent at this time of year.”

As many as 4,000 trucks and drivers—many of whom are French—were stuck around Dover on Tuesday, snaked up the highway and parked in a closed airport, as talks between London and Paris at the highest levels continued.

Earlier Tuesday, the executive branch of the European Union recommended lifting the ban on travel from the U.K. and allowing essential workers to avoid quarantines when moving between states.

However, each of the bloc’s 27 member states have a mandate over their own border policies.

“Blanket travel bans should not prevent thousands of EU and UK citizens from returning to their homes,” said Didier Reynders, the bloc’s justice commissioner.

Plus: European stocks recover ground as fears persist over new COVID-19 strain

The new strain of coronavirus has also been detected in the Netherlands, Italy, Gibraltar, Australia, and Denmark—where Sweden has closed the border with its Scandinavian neighbor.

Experts say there is no indication that COVID-19 vaccines, such as those from Pfizer

and BioNTech
as well as Moderna
will be unable to combat this new variant of coronavirus.

BioNTech, in a press conference on Tuesday, said they were unable to tell if the vaccine the company developed with Pfizer would be effective against the new variant, but were confident they would be able to produce a vaccine against it in six weeks.

More on this: BioNTech boss says more tests needed to see if vaccine protects against new COVID-19 strain

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