The French government could have “helped” Britain tackle the infectious new strain of coronavirus if not for Brexit, France’s EU commissioner said as the country demanded tests for lorry drivers to lift its freight ban.
Asked about the new outbreak, Thierry Breton said: “It’s a tragedy what’s happening in Britain, and this Brexit is a tragedy – we see it more and more every day.”
If Britain “had chosen to remain in the European Union… today we could have helped them,” Mr Breton told BFM Business.
His comments are likely fuel anger in Britain after France banned freight and flights until at least midnight on Tuesday, a move Grant Shapps, the Transport Secretary, described as surprising.
Natalie Elphicke, the Tory MP for Dover, said: “The French Government’s decision to close the border at no notice was unnecessary, unhelpful and irresponsible. It has caused serious traffic congestion at a time when traffic flows were already high, with Christmas and over-stocking causing congestion at a number of ports ahead of the end of the transition period.
“The longer that this goes on, the longer it will take to unwind, meaning that there could be queues past Christmas unless the French reopen the border soon.”
It came as fears grew that the port chaos caused by France’s coronavirus travel ban could last until at least Christmas Eve, with Emmanuel Macron, the French president, insisting lorry drivers arriving in his country must register a negative Covid test on arrival for it to be lifted.
“We are looking at systematic testing upon arrival,” Mr Macron told a Cabinet meeting by video on Monday.
It is thought France wants truckers to take the gold standard PCR Covid tests, which cost up to £180 but take between 24 hours and 48 hours, delaying attempts to get lorries moving, clear the backlog and allow drivers into France before Christmas.
It came as EU leaders held crisis talks to agree a co-ordinated response after more than 10 European countries imposed flight bans, but only France imposed restrictions on freight, over fears about the new Covid variant.
Jean-Baptiste Djebarri, the French transport minister, said he hoped a protocol would be agreed by European Union states “to ensure that movement from the UK can resume”.
Mr Djebarri said there would be a “solid health protocol” to “protect our nationals and our fellow citizens” while allowing movement to re-start.
Boris Johnson chaired a meeting of a Cobra emergency committee on Monday afternoon to discuss the mutant coronavirus strain and the travel restrictions imposed by countries in Europe and beyond.
The closure of cross-Channel routes has alarmed businesses in the lead-up to Christmas and with the added complication of the end of the Brexit transition period on December 31. Sainsbury’s warned that disruption could hit supplies of lettuce, some salad leaves, cauliflower, broccoli and citrus fruit, all of which are imported from the continent at this time of year.
Mr Shapps said emergency measures were being put in place to cope with a backlog of lorries heading for the Channel ports but sought to play down the potential impact, stressing that container freight was not hit by the ban on people crossing the border and hauliers were “quite used to anticipating disruption”.
The disused Manston Airport, in Kent, would be used as a lorry park, while Operation Stack, the contingency measures used to queue on the M20 whenever there is disruption at the Channel, was already in place.
The Transport Secretary dismissed concerns about the impact of the travel ban on supplies of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, manufactured in Belgium, because container freight was unaffected.
Richard Burnett, the chief executive of the Road Haulage Association (RHA), said the disruption could cause problems with “fresh food supply” in the run-up to Christmas, adding: “With it being so close to Christmas, we’re looking at 48 hours at this point in time in terms of the restrictions.
“We’re likely to see Operation Stack building in terms of numbers of vehicles on the UK side and that might be a deterrent for EU hauliers to want to come so close to Christmas and end up being stranded here – that’s part of the challenge that we’re facing today.”
The Port of Dover chief executive, Doug Bannister, said a prolonged period of disruption would be a “stark situation”.
“Because of the importance of the Dover straits in handling critical goods such as food and other things like that I think it could become quite dramatic,” he warned.
Mr Johnson faced demands to recall Parliament to address the crisis, which follows the introduction of new Tier 4 restrictions in London and large parts of south-east England.