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Emergency talks to prevent Christmas food shortages after freight hit by border closures

Written by on 21 December 2020

Boris Johnson is holding emergency talks to avert Christmas food shortages after France banned freight and travel from the UK.

The prime minister is chairing a crisis Cobra meeting of senior ministers and officials amid fears in Whitehall that some imported foodstuffs could run out in as little as two weeks.

Mr Johnson was forced into action after France and several other European countries responded to his Tier 4 COVID lockdown in southeast England by announcing a two-day travel ban from the UK.

Image:
Lorries starting to queue on the M20 between Folkestone and Dover in the early hours of Monday

Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium, Austria, Ireland and Bulgaria have all announced restrictions on UK travel, after the PM revealed that a highly infectious new coronavirus strain has gripped the region.

The government’s biggest fear is that supplies of food and even the COVID vaccine could be hit because French hauliers will not travel to the UK if they cannot return home.

A Number 10 spokesperson said the talks are “to discuss the situation regarding international travel, in particular the steady flow of freight into and out of the UK”, adding: “Further meetings are happening… to ensure robust plans are in place.”

Sky News understands that the government is tracking how many days of food are left on supermarket shelves, amid fears that if the ports shut for longer than the current two days, some foodstuffs will run out in just a couple of weeks.

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Amid reports of military aircraft ready to airlift Pfizer vaccines from Belgium if necessary, Whitehall sources told Sky News contingency measures are ready if needed to ensure that vaccine freight will continue unimpeded.

The government is also attempting to avoid further gridlock on roads leading to channel ports in Kent, which have already become paralysed by COVID delays and Brexit transition period hold-ups.

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said the government was expecting significant disruption in Kent and urged hauliers and other road users not to travel to the county’s ports or other routes to Europe until further notice.

Operation Stack has been implemented after the closure of the Channel Tunnel and the Port of Dover, meaning that lorries must queue on the coastbound M20 between Junctions 8 and 11 to avoid gridlock across Kent’s roads.

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Rod McKenzie, from the Road Haulage Association, told Sky News that 10,000 lorries a day crossed between Dover and Calais in France.

He added: “Brexit stockpiling is one thing, the Christmas rush is another thing, but the absolute hammer blow now is to close the borders for 48 hours.

“That is a serious disruption of the all important supply chain.”

The prime minister also faces fierce criticism from opposition politicians and some of his own senior backbenchers.

One big fear among many MPs is that after the Health Secretary Matt Hancock said on Sky’s Sophy Ridge On Sunday that the Tier 4 clampdown could last months, the travel ban could be just as lengthy.

Port of Dover
Image:
The Port of Dover has been closed after France brought in new restrictions

Leading a Tory backbench onslaught, Mark Harper, who chairs the COVID Recovery Group of Conservative MPs, demanded a recall of parliament, a Commons debate and vote on the Tier 4 measures.

“The developing serious situation arising from the government’s announcement reinforces why parliament should be recalled to debate these matters and hold ministers to account on behalf of our constituents,” he said.

There is also alarm among Tory MPs in Kent. Veteran North Thanet MP Sir Roger Gale protested: “Cross Channel travel chaos. Don’t try to blame the Transport Department. Time for Number Ten and “CDL” (Michael Gove) to get a grip.”

After warnings of a “testing day” ahead on the county’s roads, Tonbridge and Malling MP and foreign affairs select committee chairman Tom Tugendhat said ruefully: “This is going to be a very difficult time for all of us.”

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Shadow Cabinet Office minister Rachel Reeves said: “The country needs to hear credible plans and reassurance that essential supplies will be safeguarded, including our NHS, supermarkets and manufacturers with crucial supply chains.

“We cannot afford the same slowness this government has displayed throughout this pandemic. The prime minister must urgently explain what he is doing to get a grip on the situation.”

Shadow international trade minister Bill Esterson added: “Flights stopped. Ferry ports closed. Eurotunnel shut. If anyone was in any doubt about how serious this crisis was, then wake up.”

With the travel chaos coinciding with the latest deadlock in Brexit trade talks in Brussels, there have also been calls from opposition politicians for an extension to the transition period, due to end on 31 December.