Published: 00:35, 22 December 2020
| Updated: 08:00, 22 December 2020
Talks with France on reopening full trade and transport across the Channel are ongoing as the Government’s chief scientific adviser said more restrictions may be needed at home because cases of a mutant strain of Covid were now appearing “everywhere”.
Sir Patrick Vallance gave the grim warning after more than 40 countries banned UK flights because of fears regarding the spread of the coronavirus variant.
The chief scientific adviser’s remarks followed London and parts of southern and eastern England being rushed into the new Tier 4 lockdown regime at the weekend after existing Tier 3 measures proved inadequate to control the spread of the more infectious variant.
Sir Patrick indicated a lockdown may be needed in wider areas of England, particularly as Christmas mixing may result in an increased spread of cases.
Scotland and Northern Ireland have already announced new lockdowns from Boxing Day while Wales’ tough restrictions will only be eased for Christmas Day before being reimposed.
Sir Patrick’s stark warning came as:
– Boris Johnson spoke to French president Emmanuel Macron as lorries queued in Kent after Paris banned them from travelling across the Channel.
– More than 500,000 people have now received the first dose of a vaccine in the UK.
– The Prime Minister refused to guarantee that schools in England will reopen after Christmas, saying “we want, if we possibly can, to get schools back in a staggered way at the beginning of January” but “the commonsensical thing to do is to follow the path of the epidemic”.
After the Government moved to impose Tier 4 restrictions, France shut its border with the UK for 48 hours prompting delays for freight lorries heading across the Channel.
The M20 in Kent was closed on Monday night to allow for the implementation of Operation Brock – contingency measures which involve using a moveable barrier to keep traffic moving on the motorway whenever there is disruption at the Channel – as confusion surrounded how many lorries were impacted by the border shutdown.
Mr Johnson said at a Downing Street press briefing the number of lorries waiting on the M20 had been reduced from 500 to 170, but Highways England later said Kent Police had told them there were 900 lorries parked on the motorway as of 6pm on Monday.
Government sources told the PA news agency that discussions with the French Government were “ongoing” after the PM said on Monday evening the two countries were working “to unblock the flow of trade as fast as possible”.
The BBC reported plans to reopen the border will come into effect from Wednesday, citing French Europe Minister Clement Beaune.
At the Downing Street news conference Sir Patrick said: “The evidence on this virus is that it spreads easily, it’s more transmissible, we absolutely need to make sure we have the right level of restrictions in place.
“I think it is likely that this will grow in numbers of the variant across the country and I think it’s likely, therefore, that measures will need to be increased in some places, in due course, not reduced.”
The New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag) met again on Monday to consider the new variant and said, while it does not appear to alter the course of the disease, it does spread more easily.
“That again reinforces the point that it’s important to get ahead of this and to make sure that the tiering system is adequate to stop things going, and not to watch it and react in retrospect,” Sir Patrick said.
Given the “inevitable mixing” over Christmas “I think there will be some increases in numbers over the next few weeks”, he added.
The closure of cross-Channel routes alarmed businesses, including those relying on the trouble-free passage of produce into the UK, as well as holidaymakers looking to leave for the continent – all with the added complication of the end of the Brexit transition period on December 31.
The Northern Ireland Executive held an emergency late-night meeting amid a row over whether a Great Britain travel ban should be introduced, proposed by Sinn Fein but voted down by the executive.
Supermarket giant Sainsbury’s warned that disruption in Kent could hit supplies of lettuce, some salad leaves, cauliflowers, broccoli and citrus fruit, all of which are imported from mainland Europe in the winter.
– The Government said a further 215 people had died within 28 days of testing positive for Covid-19 as of Monday, while there had been 33,364 more lab-confirmed cases as of 9am Sunday.
– Official figures indicated Wales has had more than 600 cases of the new variant but this is “almost certainly a significant underestimation”, First Minister Mark Drakeford said.
– Analysis by PA found that, of the 127 acute hospital trusts with a 24-hour (type 1) A&E department in England, 42 (33%) had more Covid-19 patients on December 18 than at the peak of the first wave in the spring.