Tougher border measures with France could be introduced 'very soon', PM says

24 March 2021, 18:08 | Updated: 24 March 2021, 18:33

Nick Hardinges

By Nick Hardinges

Tougher border restrictions with France could be introduced "very soon" to prevent new variants from being imported to the UK, Boris Johnson has said.

The prime minister made the indication while being grilled by MPs on the Commons Liaison Committee on Wednesday.

Mr Johnson said restrictions could be implemented for travel between Britain and France due to concerns over the importation of coronavirus variants.

He told the committee that ministers will continue "to look at the situation at the Channel" and will not rule out introducing the measures "if necessary".

However, the UK leader noted that bringing in tighter restrictions, such as testing hauliers, would cause "serious disruption" to cross-Channel trade.

"If it's necessary to bring in testing then we will do so, but I think you should understand the balance of doing that, the disruption to trade, and the risk that we are trying to address," he told MPs.

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In response to stern questioning from Labour's Yvette Cooper, Mr Johnson said the government "will take a decision, no matter how tough, to interrupt that trade, to interrupt those flows, if we think that it is necessary to protect public health and to stop new variants coming in".

He added: "It may be that we have to do that very soon."

The prime minister acknowledged that there are currently exemptions for hauliers who are "involved in bringing in, for instance, medicines or food to the UK" and then quickly returning to France.

But he reiterated that applying any additional measures to these individuals would have "knock-on effects".

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Travel and trade between Dover and Calais could be disrupted if France is placed on the red list
Travel and trade between Dover and Calais could be disrupted if France is placed on the red list. Picture: PA

"There is an issue about whether we decide to apply more stringent measures to them, with the delays that that would entail and the knock-on effects that would entail," Mr Johnson said.

"We are certainly looking at that but people should be under no illusions that it would have consequences."

Ms Cooper said: "Everyone understands that hauliers clearly can't be covered by quarantine and carry on doing their vital job," before asking, "why are you not testing them?"

The prime minister replied: "Tougher measures would have very serious disruption on those trade flows and that has to be balanced against the current ambiguity about the effectiveness of the vaccines on the variants."

He also said putting France on the UK's travel "red list" was "something that we will have to look at".

Mr Johnson added that this consideration could come into effect due to concerns about the spread of the South African and Brazilian strains of coronavirus circulating in France.

"We will have to look at tougher measures, just because of this ambiguity about the effectiveness of the vaccines," he said.

Meanwhile, the PM also branded Test and Trace an "extraordinary achievement" but admitted the government didn’t get it right the first time.

He also said the decision to allow mixing at Christmas was the “right thing to do” considering the evidence at the time.

Mr Johnson added that his team will do “whatever it takes” to keep the UK vaccination programme going amid talks with Europe over the distribution of vaccines.

The PM also explained that vaccination passports may be needed to visit the pub, but it could be left to “individual publicans” to decide.