LONDON: The British government said yesterday it was considering tests for truckers as part of talks with French authorities to allow the resumption of freight traffic suspended due to a new more infectious coronavirus strain. Britain was plunged into fresh crisis last week with the emergence of a fresh strain of the virus, which is believed to be up to 70 percent more transmissible than other forms.
The government rolled back plans to ease restrictions over Christmas, instead making them more stringent, and is now looking for a way to get goods flowing back into the country after many countries imposed travel bans. If not, experts have warned that Britain may be facing shortages of certain fresh foods over the Christmas period. Tests in ports “are absolutely part of the discussion,” British Home Secretary Priti Patel told Sky News yesterday, adding that “we have to do everything we can.”
France decided late Sunday to suspend all arrivals from the United Kingdom for 48 hours over the new strain that has resulted in a third lockdown for London and much of southeast England. Other countries also imposed flight bans, but the French restrictions also included freight routes.
Andrew Opie, director of food and sustainability at the British Retail Consortium, said the “borders really need to be running pretty much freely from tomorrow to assure us that there won’t be any disruption”. “There is a problem potentially directly after Christmas and that is really in fresh produce, so we’re talking here about things like salad, vegetables, fresh fruit, of which the vast majority come from Europe at this time,” he told BBC Radio 4.
Spread in children
Discussions between Paris and London on finding a way to resume traffic continued yesterday. “We’re in discussion with our French counterparts… and we will find a resolution” said Patel. Around 650 trucks are currently blocked on the motorway leading from London to the port of Dover, the main cross-Channel port closed to outgoing traffic since Sunday evening, added the minister.
More than 800 more trucks are parked at a nearby disused airport. “The empty lorries which are now stuck in Kent, they need to get back to places like Spain to pick up the next consignment of raspberries and strawberries,” said Opie. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said at a press conference late Monday that he had discussed the situation with French President Emmanuel Macron, who said he wanted to “resolve the situation in the coming hours”.
The head of government, criticized for his management of the pandemic which has caused nearly 68,000 deaths, one of the highest death tolls in Europe, argued that the risks of transmission by truck drivers was “really very low”. According to the World Health Organization, transmission of this new variant is 40 to 70 percent higher. British scientists advising the British government also observed a higher transmission in children compared to other strains, and are working on this hypothesis to explain its fast spread.
Britain’s resilient rail freight industry, while much smaller than the road haulage sector, might play a key role in keeping vital, but stranded goods on the move. Lorries are stuck in long lines heading to and from the Channel port of Dover on England’s south coast, as companies try to stockpile goods before the Brexit transition period ends on December 31.
The situation has been exacerbated by countries shutting their borders to Britain to contain a fast-spreading variant of the coronavirus. Freightliner Group, a leading rail company that picks up large containers from UK ports and transports them by train to inland terminals, is waiting in the wings.
The company could be called upon to transport extra produce across Britain should businesses caught up in the Dover queues decide to ferry their goods to other ports. “What we may start seeing is the impact of goods being moved to other deep seaports around Britain,” Freightliner’s Head of Rail Strategy Peter Graham said.
Its longest trains, which are 775 meters (2,500 feet) long and carry around 60 containers, are currently transporting goods north from the English port of Southampton. While lockdown restrictions have sharply curtailed Britain’s passenger rail traffic, freight trains are running at around pre-pandemic levels with vital goods such as protective equipment needed by hospitals.
Freight trains have been affected “less than the passenger rail sector, thankfully”, said Maggie Simpson, director general of trade body Rail Freight Group, though she added that the petro-chemical sector was still “a bit volatile”. “Global oil use isn’t what it was. It’s come back up a bit now but we’re not moving as much aviation fuel for example,” she said.
Simpson said that with the first UK lockdown in late March, Britain’s rail freight volume “dropped pretty much overnight to about 50 percent” of what it would normally have been. “But there was quite a resilient” recovery, said Graham. And regardless of the situation at Dover, post-Brexit processes will allow trains that come from France through the Channel Tunnel to clear customs at an inland UK terminal.
‘Starting to relocate’
This could also benefit the rail freight sector amid fears of continued long delays for lorries at ports once Britain leaves the EU single market and customs unions on January 1. “We are seeing people starting to think a little bit differently about their supply chain… you can see some businesses starting to relocate away” from Dover, Simpson said. Since the Brexit referendum in 2016 there has been an increase in goods being picked up by freight at ports further north along England’s eastern coastline, she said.
“People, for example, who might have come from Belgium or Germany or Poland on a lorry via Dover aren’t” any more. Transporting goods by train is gaining in popularity also owing to the environmental benefits. A freight train can carry the same volume of goods as 76 heavy goods vehicles, the rail industry claims. Freight’s rise in fortunes is in sharp contrast to Britain’s passenger trains, which are much less crowded as millions of office workers now often do their jobs from home. Around 35 million UK rail journeys were made in the second quarter of 2020, down from more than 400 million a year earlier, to levels last seen in the mid-19th century, according to the Office of Rail and Road. – AFP