Almost from the day of the Brexit vote, questions have been asked about the thousands of lorries that cross between Dover and Calais every day.
It is the busiest shipping route in the world – the artery that brings supplies from the continent, and takes goods to European markets. And tonight it is seizing up.
The French government announced that it would not only stop the arrival of passengers coming from the UK, but also accompanied freight. What that means is anything under the control of a person – whether it’s a courier van, or a huge articulated lorry – is banned from travelling into France.
That isn’t all freight. Containers can still be brought across, and so can trailers that are detached from a lorry’s cab and brought over the Channel without the driver. But the lorries that trundle up and down the UK’s motorways, typically delivering fresh produce or just-in-time supplies, won’t be allowed in.
For the moment, this is only for 48 hours while the French, in concert with EU nations, decide if they can come up with a uniform approach. But even this is going to cause horrendous problems for hauliers, who wonder how to deal with what is, in effect, a one-way valve.
A European company, for instance, can send its lorry to the UK, but has no clarity on when the vehicle, or the driver, will be able to come back. A British company can’t get its lorry to the continent at all, so would have to find another route for delivery. And just putting the stuff on containers means having to find a way to get it to and from the port.
And all this at a time when British businesses are desperately trying to work out how to deal with whichever type of Brexit they end up facing.
Ultimately, it is difficult to think of a harder hand for a British company to be dealt than an uncertain Brexit, a pandemic that is mutating before our eyes and sudden, immediate disruption to supply chains.
Around Europe, decisions will be made over the coming hours that will reverberate. The continent is likely to seek a unified response from ministers when they speak on Monday morning. But what does that look like?
It’s clear that this variant form of the virus has popped up in Europe, with reported cases in Belgium, Italy, Denmark and the Netherlands. It may be more widespread than that, but, by common consent, it may not have been identified. But there is a widespread view that, even if it is more prevalent than thought, it is nowhere near as common as it appears to be in the UK.
Boris Johnson’s news conference on Saturday night, highlighting the virus’s mutation and creating the fourth tier, didn’t just attract the attention of British people but also spooked many European governments, sparking this wave of travel restrictions.
Some, like France and Belgium, have put in place bans that only last a day or two. Others, such as Germany and Bulgaria, have implemented restrictions lasting until the end of January. It is feasible that, if Europe decides to follow a common playbook, these bans could all last until the end of the year – or, to put it another way, the end of the Brexit transition period.
We all knew that Brexit would cause disruption at the borders, and that it would have an impact on supply chains. What we didn’t know, because nobody could have known it, was that a mutant version of a deadly pandemic would hasten this disruption. The question for Europe’s leaders now is how they balance the competing demands of keeping links with the UK, with the fear that such links hasten the arrival of a new danger.
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