FTSE plunges as countries cut off UK over mutant Covid strain
Prime Minister Boris Johnson to hold an emergency meeting on Monday regarding travel and freight restrictions
More than £33 billion ($43.83bn) was wiped off the value of the UK’s top 100 companies within minutes of opening on Monday as the country was cut adrift following the discovery of a new fast-spreading mutation of the Covid-19 virus.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson was holding an emergency session today after France closed its borders to hauliers for 48 hours amid concerns of fresh food shortages as trucks piled up outside the southern coastal port of Dover.
The UK was already facing huge economic upheaval with no deal expected over the country's post-Brexit future with its largest trading partner, the European Union.
The grim news on the virus has compounded the country’s woes as several countries have also banned flights from the UK.
The concerns played out on Monday as the leading FTSE index fell by more than two per cent even as a senior minister sought to play down the impact of the crisis.
European states, as well as Canada, Kuwait, Israel, Saudi Arabia and Turkey are banning flights from the UK and other countries in an effort to stop the spread of a mutation that is now taking hold in southern England.
A Saudi Arabian interior ministry source said that entry to the kingdom through land and sea ports will be also suspended for a renewable week, and those measures come after the spread of a new strain of Covid-19 among a number of countries.
France, Germany, Italy, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Belgium, Austria, Ireland and Bulgaria all announced restrictions on UK travel, hours after British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced that Christmas shopping and gatherings in southern England must be cancelled because of rapidly spreading infections blamed on the new coronavirus variant.
Port of Dover and Eurotunnel closed to outbound traffic to France
France banned all travel from the UK for 48 hours from midnight on Sunday, including trucks carrying freight through the tunnel under the English Channel or from the port of Dover.
French officials said the pause would buy time to find a “common doctrine” on how to deal with the threat, but it threw the busy cross-channel route used by thousands of trucks a day into chaos.
Nearly 6,000 lorries travel daily through Dover and the tunnel to France. While these represent about one-fifth of containers, they include the most perishable items raising concerns of shortages of fresh food from the continent.
The Port of Dover tweeted on Sunday night that its ferry terminal was “closed to all accompanied traffic leaving the UK until further notice due to border restrictions in France”.
British Transport Secretary Grant Shapps urged people not to travel to ports in Kent and said that authorities were investigating tests for hauliers in an attempt to get traffic moving again.
"In the short term, this is not an issue in terms of supply," he told the BBC. "Only France has banned hauliers...There's an issue if it carries on."
Eurostar passenger trains from London to Paris, Brussels and Amsterdam have also been halted.
PM to lead Cobra meeting on Monday
Prime Minister Boris Johnson will chair an emergency response meeting on Monday to discuss international travel, in particular the flow of freight in and out of Britain, a spokeswoman for his office said on Sunday.
The meeting will be to "discuss the situation regarding international travel, in particular the steady flow of freight into and out of the UK... to ensure robust plans are in place", the spokeswoman said.
The travel restrictions come at a difficult time for many British companies, which are engaged in last-minute stockpiling before December 31, when a status quo transition period with the European Union ends and new customs rules come into effect.
EU to hold emergency meeting on UK new virus strain
EU ambassadors will hold a crisis meeting in Brussels on Monday on travel restrictions to Britain.
Several EU countries have already imposed travel bans, in most cases effective from 11pm on Sunday that were to last a day or two as a precaution while the threat of the new strain was evaluated and a co-ordinated response determined.
An EU official said ambassadors from the 27 member states would meet on Monday under the bloc's integrated political crisis response mechanism designed to react swiftly to crises. Measures such as flight bans and the use of PCR coronavirus testing on travellers coming from Britain will be considered.
The Netherlands announced on Sunday that the travel ban will last until the end of the year, with further measures on other modes of transport also being considered.
The Dutch government said that in early December, sampling of a case in the country had revealed the same virus strain as that found in the UK.
It also issued a "do not travel" advisory measure, unless it is absolutely essential.
Belgium's Prime Minister Alexander De Croo told local television channel VRT the ban will be in place for at least 24 hours and will also halt train links. “There are a great many questions about this new mutation,” he said.
In announcing the measure, Italian foreign minister Luigi Di Maio said it was necessary to protect people in Italy.
WHO in 'close contact with UK officials over virus variant'
The World Health Organisation (WHO) said it was analysing Britain's data to see if its the runaway infection figures were the result of a more potent strain. The coronavirus has changed into many different variants as it has spread around the world – an expected result of interacting with different hosts with different biological responses.
No mutated virus has so far been proven to be more virulent than others or able to easily overcome the barriers, such as social distancing, face masks and frequent hand-washing, which are currently recommended.
“What we understand is that it does have increased transmissibility, in terms of its ability to spread,” said Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO’s technical leader on Covid-19. She added that studies are under way to better understand how fast it spreads and whether “it’s related to the variant itself, or a combination of factors with behaviour”.
US looking 'very carefully' at new virus variant
US authorities are looking "very carefully" into the virus variant spreading in Britain, top health officials said on Sunday, while indicating that a ban on UK travel was not currently in the cards.
Moncef Slaoui, chief adviser to the government's Operation Warp Speed vaccine scheme, told CNN's State of the Union that US officials "don't know yet" if the variant is present in the country.
"We are, of course... looking very carefully into this," including at the National Institutes of Health and the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, he said. At the moment, he said, no strain of the virus appears to be resistant to the vaccines available.
"This particular variant in the UK, I think, is very unlikely to have escaped the vaccine immunity," Mr Slaoui said.
"I don't think there's any reason for alarm right now," agreed Admiral Brett Giroir, the US official overseeing coronavirus testing, when asked about the new variant on ABC's The Week.
Asked whether the US was likely to follow the example of European countries that have suspended flights from the UK, Mr Giroir said: "I really don't believe we need to do that yet."
Nearly eight million more Covid-19 vaccine doses are to be distributed across the US on Monday, Mr Slaoui told CNN. This is made up of two million of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine and 5.9 million of the Moderna drug that was approved on Friday.
Boris Johnson introduces tougher restrictions for London and south-east England
The new strain is up to 70 per cent more infectious and led the British government to introduce tighter restrictions on London and surrounding areas at the weekend.
Boris Johnson said London and south-east England, previously in the highest level of a three-tier system of rules, would now be placed in a new Tier 4 level.
"It seems the spread is now being driven by the new variant," Mr Johnson said. "There is no evidence that it causes more severe illness or higher mortality, but it does appear to pass on more easily."
England had been due to relax Covid-19 restrictions for five days over the Christmas period from next Wednesday, allowing three separate households to meet indoors.
But now, Mr Johnson says those in Tier 4 cannot mix outside their households at Christmas.
In other regions, people will now only be allowed to see three other households, and on Christmas Day only.
"As your prime minister there is no alternative open to me," he said. "It is with a heavy heart we cannot continue with Christmas as planned. We are taking these extra steps to protect the country."
People in Tier 4 areas, such as London, will be banned from travelling abroad except for work, they must not leave their areas and can only meet one other person not in their household outdoors.
The new measures will be reviewed on Wednesday, December 30.
Updated: December 21, 2020 09:03 PM