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Johnson to hold Cobra meeting as Europe halts freight and flights from UK

A woman stands on an escalator heading into the underground at Waterloo station in central London. Prime Minister Boris Johnson cancelled Christmas for almost 18 million people across London and eastern and south-east England following warnings from scientists of the rapid spread of the new variant coronavirus. Photo by Victoria Jones/PA Wire

By Gavin Cordon, PA Whitehall Editor

Boris Johnson is to hold crisis talks with ministers after European countries halted flights and ferry crossing from the UK amid fears over the new mutant coronavirus strain.

The Prime Minister will chair a meeting of the Government’s Cobra civil contingencies committee on Monday as ministers seek to ensure a “steady flow of freight into and out of the UK”, Downing St said.

The move comes after France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium, Austria, Ireland and Bulgaria all announced restrictions on UK travel following the disclosure that the highly infectious new strain is widespread across south-east England.

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.

A No 10 spokesman said: “The Prime Minister will chair a Cobra 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.”

The British Retail Consortium (BRC) warned the closure of France to UK traffic – including lorries – would create “difficulties” for UK imports and exports in the busy Christmas period.

Andrew Opie, the BRC’s director of food and sustainability, said any “prolonged” disruption would be a problem in the run up to the end of the Brexit transition period on December 31.

“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,” he said.

“This is a key supply route for fresh produce at this time of year.

“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 December 31.”

Germany, which holds the rotating EU presidency, announced that it was calling emergency talks on Monday to co-ordinate 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 January 6 while Austria and the Czech Republic are also imposing new restrictions.

Countries reacted after Mr Johnson announced on Saturday that the new variant was up to 70% more transmissible than the original strain as he put London and the South into a two-week Christmas lockdown.

Concerns about the rapid spread of the disease were underlined with the publication of the latest official figures showing there had been a further 35,928 lab-confirmed cases of coronavirus in the UK as of 9am on Sunday.

Dr Yvonne Doyle, medical director at Public Health England, said: “This sharp and sudden increase is of serious concern.”

She said most of the new cases were concentrated in London and the South East – where the new strain is thought to have originated – although it was too soon to say if they were linked to it.

Mr Hancock said the country was facing an “enormous challenge” in bringing the latest outbreak under control and that tough new restrictions may be needed for months to come.

“The new variant is out of control and we need to bring it under control,” he told BBC1’s The Andrew Marr Show.

“We don’t know how long these measures are going to be in place. It may be for some time until we can get the vaccine going.”

He said that restrictions on people travelling in and out of the new Tier 4 areas of London and the South East were intended to prevent the spread of the new variant to other parts of the UK.

However, Welsh health minister Vaughan Gething said it was already present in Wales and was a factor in the rapid rise of cases there.

“The undoubtable truth is this new variant is effectively seeded across the country, so acting now takes account of the fact that this new variant is undoubtedly a factor – we can’t say how much of a factor – in the rapid growth in cases across south Wales,” he told the BBC.

Mr Hancock insisted they had acted “very quickly and decisively” after ministers were told on Friday by scientists on the Government’s New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag) that the new strain was spreading more quickly.

However, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said the alarm bells had been “ringing for weeks” and called on Mr Johnson to apologise to the country for failing to act sooner.

“It is an act of gross negligence by a Prime Minister who, once again, has been caught behind the curve,” he told an online press conference.

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