In a panic over the new strain of the coronavirus, much of the world severed connections with the UK last night, with countries from Columbia to Spain suspending flights. More worryingly, the French government took the further step of ending the movement of accompanied freight (ie lorries) into France. If this action is prolonged, it will have a potentially devastating impact on the supply of fresh foods into the UK as lorry drivers avoid crossing the Channel for fear of being trapped in Dover.
Operation Stack, the process through which lorries are lined up on the side of the M20 for days at a time, has been initiated, and the Prime Minister is expected to chair a Cobra meeting later this morning. The desperate hope in Whitehall will be that the French will reverse the freight ban when the decision is reviewed tomorrow; as now-Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab famously said a couple of years ago: the extent to which Britain’s import capacity relies on the Dover-Calais crossing is remarkable.
This short-term crisis comes at the worst possible time for the British freight industry and the economy as a whole, given that Dover has been the centre-point of no-deal preparations. If the critical new infrastructure designed to deal with Brexit is overburdened by these events, the impact of a no deal Brexit could be exacerbated. It is unlikely that even the “reasonably worst case scenario” for no deal envisioned France cutting off the border ten days before the deadline.
For Europe, there is now a pertinent question over whether the barn door has been shut after the horse has bolted, as happened earlier this year when countries belatedly suspended flights from China. Given that this new strain of the virus has been circulating in London – one of the world’s most globally-connected cities – for weeks, the chances that the strain arrived in mainland Europe some time ago and has already seeded itself are rather high. In Germany, recent weeks have seen a major and seemingly inexplicable spike in cases and hospitalisations.
Indeed, it’s probably not a coincidence that Britain is genuinely “world-leading” on the genome sequencing front. The suggestion from some scientists is that we are merely the first to spot a wave that is already crashing into Europe.
The seriousness of this situation should not be understated. If NERVTAG’s initial analysis proves correct – and that’s still a big if (scientists say they have “moderate confidence”) – then coronavirus will be almost impossible to temporarily suppress through lockdowns, with countries across the continent left managing a steady increase in new cases and hospitalisations. For health providers, such as the NHS, which have a low excess bed capacity, this could prove disastrous.
We should have more clarity on both the scientific and trade fronts in the coming hours and days. For now, we can only hope that the preliminary scientific analysis has got this wrong, or otherwise we will likely see the entire country, and much of Europe, enter a strict lockdown for an indefinite period. As Tom Whipple, The Times’ science editor, wrote last night: “If this mutation really does what scientists fear, then the situation is desperate.”
But vaccines are here and the race is on to get the jab to the vulnerable this winter, with a regulatory decision expected in the next few days on the Oxford vaccine. The UK has ordered up to 100m doses.