Virus-linked isolation of UK eases but backlog persists

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Vehicles wait at the entrance to the Port of Dover, that is blocked by police, as they queue to be allowed to leave, in Dover, England, Wednesday, Dec. 23, 2020. Freight from Britain and passengers with a negative coronavirus test have begun arriving on French shores, after France relaxed a two-day blockade over a new virus variant. The blockade had isolated Britain, stranded thousands of drivers and raised fears of shortages (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)

CALAIS – Gridlock at an English port kept thousands of truckers and travelers stranded Wednesday despite a deal with France to lift a two-day blockade imposed because of a new variant of the coronavirus that had isolated Britain and raised fears of food shortages.

While some goods and passengers began arriving on French shores in the morning, many still struggled to get through. With officials warning that the backlog would take days to clear, frustrated truckers scuffled with police at the port of Dover. Some have suggested the chaos was a precursor to what Britain may face if it doesn’t come to a trade agreement with the European Union before it leaves the bloc’s economic embrace on Dec. 31.

“Looking around, it doesn’t really seem that there’s a lot of progress being made here,” said Ben Richtzenhaim, a financial services worker who drove overnight from Scotland in hopes of getting home to Germany by car. “People are still not moving out of the way, and the authorities are not doing something either. So it’s a real deadlock.”

Nations around the world began barring people from Britain over the weekend after Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced that scientists said a new version of the virus whipping around London and England's southeast may be more contagious. The announcement added to anxieties at a time when Europe has been walloped by soaring new virus infections and deaths.

On Wednesday, British Health Secretary Matt Hancock said that another new variant — from South Africa — has turned up in Britain, and announced restrictions on travel from the African country.

Some European countries relaxed their travel limits on Britain on Wednesday, though many remain in place. Still, it was France’s ban on freight that caused the most alarm and led to a feeling of intense isolation on the island nation, since the U.K. relies heavily on its cross-Channel commercial links to the continent for food at this time of year, especially fresh fruit and vegetables.

Fears of food shortages added to an already glum runup to Christmas in Britain, where authorities have scaled back or canceled plans to relax restrictions for the holiday as daily virus infections soar and many hospitals are nearing capacity.

Britain reported another 744 deaths and a record 39,237 confirmed cases Wednesday, and the health secretary said that millions more people in England would come under the country’s most severe restrictions from Dec. 26. The rules, which close all nonessential shops and ban households from mixing indoors, already cover London and surrounding areas.