It will take days, however, to get moving the thousands of freight trucks stranded on the British side of the English Channel as the drivers are all tested.
British Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick estimated that there were at least 4,000 trucks parked around the Kent region and said the military would manage testing sites, including one at Manston airport where many of the trucks are located.
“It’s a significant number to work through … I think it will take a few days,” he said to Sky News.
TV footage showed angry drivers scuffling with police and honking their horns in protest after being stranded for days, often far from even the most basic hygienic facilities. Many now face the prospect of missing Christmas with their families.
In interviews with local television, truckers picketing the port town of Dover said there was no movement, no apparent testing and no facilities provided for them.
“What we’ve got this morning is very, very angry truckers in Dover,” Rod McKenzie of the Road Haulage Association told the BBC. “They’re tired, frustrated, desperately want to get home for Christmas.”
In his morning television appearances, Jenrick also said there were no shortages of food at supermarkets and urged everyone to avoid panic-buying. Many locations have reported empty supermarket shelves.
Britain’s main supermarket chains, Tesco and Sainsbury’s, however, warned on Monday that some fresh food could run out if freight did not start moving soon. Late Tuesday, Tesco announced the rationing of certain products in an email to customers, including toilet paper, rice, soap and eggs to ensure there would be enough for everyone.
Britain’s newspapers, meanwhile, were dominated with images of thousands of trucks lined up in Manston, amid reports that more of the country could go into harsher lockdowns as soon as Saturday to stop the spread of the virus. While Jenrick would not comment on any plans, he did tell the BBC the new variant was spreading and a “game-changer.”
The announcement by British Health Secretary Matt Hancock on Sunday that a new mutant variant of the coronavirus that could be even more contagious and was “out of control” in the country prompted swift travel bans from much of Europe and dozens of countries abroad.
Most were restricted to flight bans but France was unique in banning freight across one of Europe’s busiest travel corridors, something Jenrick on Wednesday singled out as “relatively unusual.”
Amid the sudden enforced isolation from the rest of the world — which comes even as Britain is attempting to negotiate the terms of its future relations with the European Union — much of the country is experiencing a harsh new lockdown coinciding with Christmas and the banning of most gatherings.
More than 18 million Britons are now in “Tier 4” shutdown, with all nonessential shops, pubs, restaurants, gyms, hair salons, theaters and toy stores closed.
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 nonessential travel to and from the UK should be discouraged,” the E.U.’s executive arm said in a statement, 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.
Despite the commission’s recommendation, several countries continued to head in the opposite direction Tuesday. Hungary banned passenger planes from Britain until early February, while Germany and Ireland extended their entry restrictions. Singapore and the Philippines on Wednesday announced their own ban on flights from Britain.
The Netherlands, however, eased its ban, now requiring only a recent negative PCR test from arrivals from Britain and South Africa. The Dutch government also urged passengers to quarantine for 10 days after arrival.
BioNTech chief executive Ugur Sahin said Tuesday that the vaccine his company developed in partnership with Pfizer is likely to be effective against the new variant identified in Britain but that a new version of the vaccine could be developed within six weeks if necessary.