By: Pan Pylas, Mike Stobbe & JV Staff
Over 2,800 stranded truck drivers hoped to get the green light Tuesday to leave Britain and get back home for Christmas as the country found itself increasingly isolated and its trade bottled up, cut off by neighbors afraid of a new version of the coronavirus circulating in England.
More than 630 trucks snaked along a major highway in southeast England near the English Channel ports, while almost 2,200 others crowded into an unused airport on Day 2 of an ordeal that began when dozens of nations banned flights from the U.K. and France barred entry to its trucks.
France’s prime minister said Tuesday evening that he expected a solution to the standoff in a matter of hours.
The precautions that France and others imposed were prompted by a new variant of the virus that is believed to be more contagious, though experts say it does not appear to be more deadly or vaccine-resistant. A similar one has emerged in South Africa.
On an island nation that relies heavily on its commercial links to the continent, the travel bans stoked fears of Christmastime food shortages.
At the same time, Britain is witnessing an alarming rise in infections, with a record 36,800 reported on Tuesday, and is facing deep uncertainty over its final exit from the European Union in less than two weeks. Despite the looming deadline, the country has yet to work out its post-Brexit trade arrangements with the EU.
“What is so bad to me, is not just this new mutation, but the fact that we have been so bad at dealing with the pandemic, and it now looks like we’re heading for what’s called a perfect storm with the mutation 70% more infectious and Brexit all at the same time,” said 73-year-old Jim Gibson of London.
“People are really struggling to get their heads round one of these, let alone both — and now we’re being told we may have eaten our last lettuce for three months, too, probably.”
For the drivers, it has been a grim couple of days, with some complaining about the lack of toilet facilities and food.
“My family is waiting for me, my children, my daughter, my son, my wife,” said Greg Mazurek of Poland. “It was supposed to be a very quick trip, three to four days max. I spent in the U.K. 10 minutes in the gas station and 20 minutes unloading, and now I need to wait two days here in the port in Dover.”
Drivers held out hope their ordeal might end within hours. The prospects seemed to improve Tuesday when the EU’s executive arm recommended a lifting of the bans and French Prime Minister Jean Castex announced France would allow EU travelers, along with British citizens with EU residency, back into the country if they had a negative virus test in the preceding 72 hours.
Castex said no decision had been made yet on cargo traffic but that he expected a solution “in the coming hours.” Britain’s transport secretary, Grant Shapps, said “good progress” had been made in discussions with French authorities.
British retailers have become increasingly concerned about the blockage at the ports, given that 10,000 trucks pass through Dover every day, accounting for about 20% of the country’s trade in goods.
Andrew Opie, director of food and sustainability at the British Retail Consortium, warned of potential shortages of fresh vegetables and fruit after Christmas if the borders are not “running pretty much freely” by Wednesday.
The problem, he explained, is that the empty trucks sitting in England can’t reach the continent to pick up deliveries for Britain.
“They need to get back to places like Spain to pick up the next consignment of raspberries and strawberries, and they need to get back within the next day or so, otherwise we will see disruption,” he said.
The virus is blamed for 1.7 million deaths worldwide, including more than 68,000 in Britain, the second-highest death toll in Europe, behind Italy’s 69,000.
Over the weekend, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson imposed strict lockdown measures in London and neighboring areas amid mounting concerns over the new variant. He scrapped a planned relaxation of rules over Christmastime for millions of people and banned indoor mixing of households. Only essential travel will be permitted.
In Switzerland, meanwhile, authorities are trying to track an estimated 10,000 people who have arrived by plane from Britain since Dec. 14, and has ordered them to quarantine for 10 days. Switzerland was one of the 40-odd countries to ban flights from Britain over the new variant.
The quarantine order is likely to affect thousands of Britons who may have already headed to Swiss ski resorts. Unlike many of its neighbors, Switzerland has left most of its slopes open, attracting enthusiasts from around Europe.
“Do not leave your room or residence and avoid all contacts,” Switzerland’s public health agency urged vacationing Britons and South Africans. It warned they face potential fines of 10,000 Swiss francs ($11,250).
Several European countries announced travel bans from the U.K. to combat the spread of the new, more contagious strain of coronavirus.
Netherlands and Belgium banned passenger air travel from the U.K., leaders from both countries announced Sunday, while France, Germany, Italy, Ireland and Israel were expected to introduce restrictions of their own, the BBC reported. The U.K. informed the World Health Organization Saturday that the mutant strain of coronavirus could spread quicker than previous strains.
“This is a precautionary measure and we will see later if we need additional measures,” Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo said Sunday, according to The Wall Street Journal.
Belgium banned all flights and rail arrivals from the U.K. while Netherlands banned flight arrivals, The WSJ reported. Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio said Italy would also prohibit travel, but the details weren’t finalized.
“The U.K. has raised the alarm about a new form of Covid resulting from a mutation in the virus,” Di Maio said in a Facebook post. “Our priority is to protect Italy and our compatriots.”
Meanwhile, the UK’s Johnson implemented strict measures limiting Christmas gathering and shopping in southern England Saturday in response to the new coronavirus strain.
“I know how much emotion people invest in this time of year, and how important it is for grandparents to see their grandchildren,” Johnson said, according to The Associated Press. “But when the virus changes its method of attack, we must change our method of defense.”
New York’s Governor Andrew M. Cuomo said it was “reprehensible” and “grossly negligent” to let travelers fly into JFK from the United Kingdom without being tested, due to the threat that the new contagious mutation represents. “Right now, this variant in the UK is getting on a plane and flying to JFK,” Cuomo told reporters in a call on Sunday.
“Right now. Today,” the governor urged the feds to immediately enact coronavirus testing for UK travelers, at a “minimum,” if not an outright ban. “Literally six flights a day. And all it takes is one person,” he said, worrying that the new strain can be easily brought to New York on a flight.
As reported by the NY Post, since Johnson’s announcement on Saturday, European countries including France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium, Austria, Ireland and Bulgaria have enacted bans or strict restrictions on UK travelers. Another “120 countries require testing, we don’t. Other European countries have done a ban, we haven’t. And today that variant is getting on a plane and landing at JFK,” Cuomo said of UK travelers.
The governor said that Johnson’s sudden lockdown so close to the holidays is a strong sign of how “apparently dangerous” the new mutation is. “We have about six flights a day coming in from the UK. And we have done absolutely nothing,” said Cuomo. “To me, this is reprehensible, because this is what happened in the spring,” he said.
Gov. Cuomo also announced that New York State now has a positive rate of 5.05 percent, with another 9,957 COVID-19 cases. He said that fear of the new strain “kept me up last night.” But that, “The Port Authority has no authority to ban passengers, health monitor passengers. It’s federal”.
“Doing nothing is negligent. It’s grossly negligent,” Cuomo said. “How many times in life do you have to make the same mistake before you learn?”
Earlier on Sunday, Assistant Secretary for Health Admiral Brett Giroir had downplayed the situation, saying we will just “continue to watch” news of the mutation’s spread in the UK. “I don’t think there should be any reason for alarm right now,” Giroir said on ABC’s “This Week.” Giroir added that the new vaccines “should continue to work very robustly against all of these strains.”
In other pandemic related news, the AP reported on Monday that this is the deadliest year in U.S. history, with deaths expected to top 3 million for the first time — due mainly to the coronavirus pandemic.
Final mortality data for this year will not be available for months. But preliminary numbers suggest that the United States is on track to see more than 3.2 million deaths this year, or at least 400,000 more than in 2019.
U.S. deaths increase most years, so some annual rise in fatalities is expected. But the 2020 numbers amount to a jump of about 15%, and could go higher once all the deaths from this month are counted.
That would mark the largest single-year percentage leap since 1918, when tens of thousands of U.S. soldiers died in World War I and hundreds of thousands of Americans died in a flu pandemic. Deaths rose 46% that year, compared with 1917.
COVID-19 has killed more than 318,000 Americans and counting. Before it came along, there was reason to be hopeful about U.S. death trends.
The nation’s overall mortality rate fell a bit in 2019, due to reductions in heart disease and cancer deaths. And life expectancy inched up — by several weeks — for the second straight year, according to death certificate data released Tuesday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
But life expectancy for 2020 could end up dropping as much as three full years, said Robert Anderson of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The CDC counted 2,854,838 U.S. deaths last year, or nearly 16,000 more than 2018. That’s fairly good news: Deaths usually rise by about 20,000 to 50,000 each year, mainly due to the nation’s aging, and growing, population.
Indeed, the age-adjusted death rate dropped about 1% in 2019, and life expectancy rose by about six weeks to 78.8 years, the CDC reported.
“It was actually a pretty good year for mortality, as things go,” said Anderson, who oversees CDC death statistics.
The U.S. coronavirus epidemic has been a big driver of deaths this year, both directly and indirectly.
The virus was first identified in China last year, and the first U.S. cases were reported this year. But it has become the third leading cause of death, behind only heart disease and cancer. For certain periods this year, COVID-19 was the No. 1 killer.
But some other types of deaths also have increased.
A burst of pneumonia cases early this year may have been COVID-19 deaths that simply weren’t recognized as such early in the epidemic. But there also have been an unexpected number of deaths from certain types of heart and circulatory diseases, diabetes and dementia, Anderson said. (AP & Combined Sources)