Boris Johnson is to hold crisis talks with ministers after European countries closed their doors to flights and ferry crossings from the UK amid fears over the new mutant coronavirus strain.
The Prime Minister will chair a meeting of the Government’s Cobra civil contingencies committee on Monday amid warnings of “significant disruption” around the Channel ports in Kent.
The move comes after France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium, Austria, Ireland and Bulgaria all announced restrictions on UK travel following the disclosure that the highly infectious new strain is widespread across south-east England.
A No 10 spokesman said: “The Prime Minister will chair a Cobra meeting tomorrow to discuss the situation regarding international travel, in particular the steady flow of freight into and out of the UK.
“Further meetings are happening this evening and tomorrow morning to ensure robust plans are in place.”
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps urged people including hauliers to stay away from the area around the Channel ports.
“We expect significant disruption in the area. My department is urgently working with Highways England and Kent Council on contingency measures to minimise traffic disruption in the area,” he said.
The British Retail Consortium (BRC) warned the closure of France to UK traffic would create “difficulties” for UK imports and exports in the busy Christmas period.
Andrew Opie, the BRC’s director of food and sustainability, said any “prolonged” disruption would be a problem in the run up to the end of the Brexit transition period on December 31.
“While goods can enter from France, few haulage firms will be willing to send trucks and drivers across to the UK without a guarantee they can return to the EU in a timely manner,” he said.
“This is a key supply route for fresh produce at this time of year.
“Retailers have stocked up on goods ahead of Christmas which should prevent immediate problems.
“However, any prolonged closure of the French border would be a problem as the UK enters the final weeks before the transition ends on December 31.”
Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said it was “imperative” that the UK Government sought an extension to the Brexit transition period.
“The new Covid strain – and the various implications of it – means we face a profoundly serious situation, and it demands our 100% attention,” she said.
“It would be unconscionable to compound it with Brexit.”
Germany, which holds the rotating EU presidency, announced that it was calling emergency talks on Monday to co-ordinate the response of the bloc’s 27 member states.
It came after the Irish government said it was imposing a 48-hour ban on flights from Britain while ferries would be restricted to freight only.
The Netherlands said it was stopping flights from the UK at least until the end of the year while Belgium has imposed a 24-hour ban on flights and rail links while it assesses the situation.
Italy is prohibiting entry to the country by anyone who has been in the UK in the last 14 days and flights are banned until January 6 while Austria and the Czech Republic are also imposing new restrictions.
Countries reacted after Mr Johnson announced on Saturday that the new variant was up to 70% more transmissible than the original strain as he put London and the South into a two-week Christmas lockdown.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock admitted the new variant coronavirus was “out of control” and said the new restrictions may have to remain in place for months.
Dr Yvonne Doyle, medical director at Public Health England, said: “This sharp and sudden increase is of serious concern.”
She said most of the new cases were concentrated in London and the South East – where the new strain is thought to have originated – although it was too soon to say if they were linked to it.