PM to chair Cobra meeting amid UK-France border disruption

21 December 2020, 07:45

Boris Johnson will chair a Cobra meeting due to travel and border chaos
Boris Johnson will chair a Cobra meeting due to travel and border chaos. Picture: PA
Nick Hardinges

By Nick Hardinges

Boris Johnson will hold an emergency Cobra meeting on Monday morning as the list of countries banning UK travel due to the new Covid strain continues to grow.

The prime minister will chair a crisis meeting of the government's Cobra civil contingencies committee on Monday after a series of countries announced they were stopping flights from the UK, Downing Street has said.

It comes as France and Germany joined the growing list of nations - including Italy, Austria, Belgium, Ireland, the Netherlands and Bulgaria - in announcing UK travel bans due to fears over the new coronavirus variant.

The decision also follows the Port of Dover ferry terminal and Eurotunnel both choosing to close following French travel restrictions.

A No 10 spokesperson said: "The Prime Minister will chair a COBR 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."

Read more: Major disruption at Kent ports after France bans UK arrivals

Read more: PM to chair Cobra meeting after countries announce UK travel bans

Mr Johnson is now facing pressure from both within his party and from opposition parties over the developing situation at the UK-France border.

Conservative Kent MP Sir Roger Gale urged No10 and Michael Gove, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, to "get a grip" of the chaos.

He tweeted: "Cross Channel travel chaos. Don't try to blame the Transport Department. Time for Number Ten and 'CDL' to get a grip.

Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said: "It’s now imperative that PM seeks an agreement to extend the Brexit transition period.

"The new Covid strain - & the various implications of it - means we face a profoundly serious situation, & it demands our 100% attention. It would be unconscionable to compound it with Brexit."

Read more: France and Germany join countries in banning UK travel over variant

Read more: UK sees biggest-ever daily rise in cases after recording 35,928 infections

Labour MP Rachel Reeves also piled pressure on the prime minister, urging the government to offer "credible plans" that essential supplies to the UK will not be affected by the border disruption.

She said: "The country needs to hear credible plans and reassurance that essential supplies will be safeguarded, including our NHS, supermarkets and manufacturers with crucial supply chains.

"We cannot afford the same slowness this government has displayed throughout this pandemic. The prime minister must urgently explain what he is doing to get a grip on the situation."

The Port of Dover announced its ferry terminal was closing to all accompanied traffic leaving the UK due to French border restrictions, while Eurotunnel said it would shut after the last shuttles left at 9:34pm on Sunday.

Earlier Health Secretary Matt Hancock admitted the new variant coronavirus was "out of control" and that tough new restrictions announced by Mr Johnson on Saturday may remain in place for months.

Andrew Opie, of the British Retail Consortium, said: "The closure of France to UK traffic, including accompanied freight, poses difficulties for UK capacity to import and export key goods during the busy Christmas period.

"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.

"This is a key supply route for fresh produce at this time of year: the Channel crossings see 10,000 trucks passing daily during peak periods such as in the run-up to Christmas.

"We urge the UK Government and the EU to find a pragmatic solution to this as soon as possible, to prevent disruption for consumers.

"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 31 December."

Germany, which holds the rotating EU presidency, announced that it was calling emergency talks on Monday to coordinate the response of the bloc's 27 member states.

Earlier, 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 6 January, while Austria and the Czech Republic are also imposing new restrictions.

Late on Sunday, the UK Government warned of "significant disruption" in Kent on Monday.

"We are expecting significant disruption in Kent following the announcement by the French Government that, from 2300 on Sunday 20 December, it will not accept any passengers from the UK for the next 48 hours," a government spokesman said.

"As a result, we are urging everybody - including all hauliers - to avoid travelling to Kent ports until further notice.

"We are working closely with Kent Resilience Forum, Kent Council and Highways England to ensure contingency measures are urgently put in place to manage disruption, and the prime minister will chair a Cobra meeting tomorrow to discuss the situation."

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