Britain could have been helped in tackling the escalating coronavirus crisis if it had remained in the EU, the internal market commissioner in Brussels has said.
As the UK government sought the reopening of Europe’s borders to British travellers, Thierry Breton, a French EU commissioner, described the outbreak of a new virus strain in the UK as a tragedy.
The UK transport secretary, Grant Shapps, is continuing his talks with the French government about reopening key supply chains after France on Sunday night announced a 48-hour ban on freight, cargo and passengers coming from the UK in response to the outbreak of a highly infectious new Covid strain in the south-east of England.
The EU is drawing up a coordinated plan to lift travel restrictions from the UK, but no date has yet been set for when passenger, freight and cargo movement will be permitted again, with EU sources suggesting the ban will remain for some time.
Officials from the member states attending a three-hour meeting on Monday were briefed by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control on the new crisis. They agreed that the priority was keeping EU borders open and “repatriating citizens and legal residents wishing to return from the UK”, an EU diplomat said. The European commission has been ordered to draw up guidelines for national governments.
Breton said the tragedy was that the EU could have provided the British government with valuable financial aid through its €750bn recovery plan it the UK had chosen to stay in the bloc.
“It’s a tragedy what’s happening in Britain, and this Brexit is a tragedy, we see it more and more every day,” he said. “It is a decision which we respect because the British people are sovereign. But consider that if Great Britain had remained as we wished, it would have today, like all other European countries, between €30bn and €50bn in aid thanks to the Next Generation EU fund set up by the commission.”
Breton went on: “We will have a [Brexit] agreement, but what a waste of time.”
The UK government has ruled out a recall of parliament despite the impact of the new variant of coronavirus. Boris Johnson is to chair a meeting of the government’s Cobra emergencies committee later on Monday and will then host a No 10 press conference to update the nation.
The government is putting in place contingency plans to deal with an expected queue of lorries at Channel ports after France barred freight movements. France also announced a travel ban on passengers arriving from the UK, alongside countries including Denmark, Germany, Italy, Belgium, Ireland, Turkey and Canada.
London and much of the south and east of England were placed in a new tier 4 of restrictions from Sunday, with people ordered not to travel elsewhere in the UK. Downing Street played down the need to extend the restrictions, indicating ministers believe the new regime will be enough to curb the spread of the new strain.
Asked about the freight ban, Johnson’s spokesman said the UK was “working incredibly closely with our international partners” to end the disruption, adding: “The French transport minister is trying to establish a solid health protocol in the next few hours to ensure that movement from the UK can resume. We’re in close contact with the French to try and get this resolved.”
No 10 urged people to not panic-buy amid warnings of shortages of some food items in supermarkets, saying the UK had “resilient supply chains” for food.
Asked if MPs could be recalled, the spokesman said this would only be done to ratify any Brexit deal: “If we need to recall parliament for the purposes of Brexit, we will.”
Asked why the tier 4 measures were not being pushed out across England, the spokesman indicated the prime minister felt enough was being done to prevent the spread of the Covid variant.
“I would point to the fact that we’ve been clear that people shouldn’t be travelling out of tier 4 areas, and I would point to the changes that we have made in terms of tier 4,” he said. “We’re being clear that people should remain at home and limit human interaction.”
Asked why household mixing for people in tiers 1, 2 and 3 would still be allowed on Christmas Day, he said: “I would point to the introduction of tier 4, which is designed specifically to try and drive the transmission of the variant Covid down. We’ve been clear that we don’t want people to leave tier 4 areas.”