Boris Johnson tries to calm French border crisis after new COVID-19 strain found

Boris Johnson was hopeful French President Emmanuel Macron would lift a ban on British imports being trucked across the English Channel within hours, as he urged Britons to look forward a "very different world" by Easter as the country battles a new, highly infectious strain of COVID-19.

More than a dozen countries cancelled flights from the UK following the discovery on Friday of the new strain which is not thought to be any more lethal, even though it is more transmissible.

British PM Boris Johnson speaks after a string of countries banned travellers and all but unaccompanied freight arriving from the UK.Credit:Getty

French President Emmanuel Macron closed the border and cancelled all human-driven trucks carrying goods across the Channel at eleven o'clock local time for 48 hours on Sunday night, affecting 20 per cent of truckers.

Johnson held an emergency Cobra, crisis management meeting then spoke by phone with Macron. Johnson said the French President wanted to resolve the issue, which had caused a backlog of 170 trucks, within hours.

"The vast majority of food, medicines and other supplies are coming and going as normal," he said.

"These delays only apply to a very small percentage of food entering the UK … so everyone can continue to shop normally," he said. There was no sign of any panic-buying at a supermarket in south east London visited by this masthead on Tuesday morning AEDT.

A sign reads “Covid-19 Cases Very High in London. Stay at Home” near a highway in London, UK.Credit:Bloomberg

Supermarket Sainsbury's warned of shortages of lettuce, salad leaves, cauliflowers, broccoli and citrus within days if the issue was not resolved.

"We hope the UK and French governments can come to a mutually agreeable solution that prioritises the immediate passage of produce and any other food at the ports," a spokesperson said.

Transport Minister Grant Shapps claimed the closure at the Port of Dover, which many Conservative MPs believe is warning shot from Macron to Britain as the two sides remain at odds over the future trading arrangement after December 31, had shown their Brexit preparations were working.

"Some of the reason why we have not seen big problems in Kent today, because the transition period work that's been going on for very many months and years even is coming to fruition, a few weeks earlier than anticipated," he said.

A Romanian lorry driver waits in his cab at Ashford lorry park as restrictions on travelling to the continent continue.Credit:Getty

"It has shown that we are ready."

Johnson said the government "fully understood the anxieties about the new variant" following widespread border closures imposed on Britain by numerous countries, just four days out from Christmas.

The British Prime Minister's chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance warned that tougher restrictions imposed on London and the south-east of England, effectively cancelling Christmas for millions, would be widened across the country.

"The new variant is spread around the country, it's localised in some places but we know there are cases everywhere, it's not as though we can stop this getting into other places, there's some there already," Sir Patrick said.

Britain’s biggest port stopped all traffic heading to Europe, triggering delays to food supplies after the discovery of a new variant of the virus prompted a wave of countries to ban travel from the UK.Credit:Bloomberg

"It’s likely this will grow across the country and it’s likely therefore that measures will need to be increased in some places in due course and not reduced."

Johnson did not rule out keeping schools closed after the New Year.

Despite previously promising a return to normal life by Christmas which proved false, Johnson promised better times by Easter, saying half a million people had now received their first vaccine shots. Britain was the first country to approve the vaccine and began rolling it out one week ago.

Britain recorded another 33,364 infections on Monday, taking the weekly total of new cases to 203,845. A total 67,616 people have died.

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