The European Commission has called on EU member states to drop “blanket travel bans” against people coming from the UK.
The bans, imposed by some countries in light of reports of a new Covid strain in southern England, are causing significant disruption to trade flows at Channel ports and have left some British and EU citizens stranded ahead of Christmas.
But in a recommendation issued on Tuesday afternoon, Brussels said travel restrictions to prevent the spread of any new strain should have exemptions to prevent border disruption, which is wreaking havoc on trade flows.
“Given the current uncertainties and in light of the precautionary principle, member states should take coordinated action to discourage non-essential travel between the UK and the EU," Didier Reynders, the EU's justice commissioner, said.
"At the same time, blanket travel bans should not prevent thousands of EU and UK citizens from returning to their homes.
"While precautions are needed to contain the spread of the new coronavirus variant, with today's recommendation, we therefore ensure that the restrictions are coordinated and provide for the necessary exemptions for citizens and residents returning home and other essential travellers.”
In a statement the Commission said that while "all non-essential travel to and from the UK should be discouraged", other "essential travel and transit of passengers should be facilitated".
"Flight and train bans should be discontinued given the need to ensure essential travel and avoid supply chain disruptions," it added.
On Sunday evening France announced that it would be banning all but “unaccompanied freight” from the UK for 48 hours, stranding lorry drivers and other logistics workers on the other side of the channel. All ferry connections, as well as rail services through the Channel tunnel, were quickly halted.
The French prime minister Jean Castex has said the travel ban could be lifted for essential journeys, as long as mandatory Covid testing is carried out before departure. Such an approach is yet to be put in place, but the Department for Transport said the situation was “under review" and that the UK was “in close contact with counterparts to find a solution”.
One question that would have to be resolved is whether so-called “PCR” tests with a 24-48 hour turnaround for results were used, or whether “lateral flow” tests with a 1 hour turnaround would be deployed.
But industry group the Road Haulage Association has said even an hour wait for such tests to be processed at ports would still lead to signifiant disruption.
France is far from alone in imposing travel bans on the UK. More than 40 countries both inside and outside the EU are trying to contain the spread of the supposedly new variant form England, which UK government scientists are claiming is 70 per cent more infectious than the established version of the virus.
The emergence of the variant was blamed by the government on its abrupt Christmas policy U-turn, but evidence for the 70 per cent figure is in its early stages and yet to be confirmed elsewhere.
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