France to Reopen Transport Links to U.K. by Midnight Tuesday

France said it will start to reopen critical trade and transportation links with the U.K. by midnight Tuesday, two days after a temporary suspension triggered chaos at Britain’s busiest port.

Travel from the U.K. will resume for European Union citizens and residents able to demonstrate negative Covid-19 tests, according to a statement from Prime Minister Jean Castex. Other nationals will be allowed to resume essential travel.

Jean-Baptiste Djebbari, French junior transport minister, said the process for getting trucks moving again will be set out from 10 p.m. Paris time in coordination with the British. The objective is to have freight traffic moving by Wednesday morning, a French official said.

Truck drivers have been forced to wait on roads and an emergency parking area close to Dover port in southeast England, intensifying pressure on Britain as it gets a taste of the upheaval that may be coming in less than two weeks if it fails to strike a trade deal with the EU before the Brexit transition period ends on Dec. 31.

Without an agreement, the country will default to trading with the EU on World Trade Organization terms, with the imposition of costly tariffs and quotas.

Easing Standoff

The backdrop of intense Brexit negotiations hung over U.K. government efforts to persuade France to reopen trade routes after two days of cross-Channel political bartering. Prime Minister Boris Johnson called French President Emmanuel Macron on Monday to try to find a solution, while U.K. Transport Secretary Grant Shapps has also been in regular contact with his French counterpart.

Though both sides had promised to resolve the border issue within hours on Monday, the impasse instead dragged on over a disagreement on how to ensure truck drivers were not carrying the new coronavirus strain into France.

The French side was pushing for haulers to take PCR tests, which give a result in between 24 and 48 hours, two people familiar with the matter said, while the U.K. preferred lateral flow tests that are less accurate but take only about 15 minutes — so could ease the queues faster.

France shut down freight traffic from Dover on Sunday over concerns the faster-spreading variant of Covid-19 could trigger a surge in cases, just as it did in London and surrounding areas, where the U.K. government has imposed a strict lockdown.

EU ambassadors meeting in Brussels on Tuesday agreed to continue monitoring the epidemiological situation closely and the EU’s crisis reponse unit is ready to meet if necessary in the coming daysy, EU diplomats said. At the same time, the envoys stressed the importance of maintaining the flow of freight into and out of the U.K.

Isolating U.K.

More than 40 countries have restricted flights, effectively isolating the U.K., including Hungary, Spain and Portugal.

Meanwhile, over 1,500 trucks have been backed up along roads in southeast England, threatening to create shortages of some fresh food items in British supermarkets before Christmas.

The new travel restrictions will apply until at least Jan. 6, the French government said. According to a person familiar with the matter, the British government asked to publish any announcement late in the day to avoid too many trucks driving to the county of Kent, where the port of Dover is located. The timing of the announcement and precise details are still being discussed, the person said.

“Truckers shouldn’t, and it’s important, gather at departure points in Kent to avoid saturating the system we’re putting into place,” Djebbari told BFM TV. The U.K.’s Shapps echoed that request on Twitter.

Earlier on Tuesday, the European Commission called on member states to reopen critical trade and passenger transport links to the U.K. while discouraging non-essential travel. It also said truck drivers could be asked to take coronavirus tests or go into quarantine when arriving in the EU — as long as the requirements didn’t disrupt supply chains.

Non-essential travel between the U.K and the EU is set to be temporarily restricted anyway from Jan. 1, when Britain leaves the customs union. As a so-called third country, the U.K. will be subject to Covid-related restrictions.

— With assistance by Alberto Nardelli

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