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Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks during a news conference at 10 Downing Street, London, Dec. 19, 2020.

Toby Melville/The Associated Press

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has tried to ease the growing international concern about a British-born variant of COVID-19 that has led dozens of countries to close their borders to British travellers and caused havoc at the Port of Dover.

More than 40 countries including Canada have banned travel from Britain after the country’s health officials revealed details on the weekend about a new variant of COVID-19 that scientists say is highly contagious. The variant is believed to have caused a rapid increase in infections across much of Britain and it accounts for 60 per cent of new cases in London, Wales and other regions.

Britain’s sudden status as a global pariah led to hundreds of cancelled flights on Monday and the suspension of train service through the Eurotunnel. The Port of Dover also closed after France shut its border, leaving 500 trucks backed up along the highway and cutting off Britain’s critical trade link to Europe. Roughly 20 per cent of all goods bought and sold in Britain pass through Dover.

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The shutdown of the port led to concerns about shortages of food, medicine and other products. “If nothing changes, we will start to see gaps over the coming days on lettuce, some salad leaves, cauliflower, broccoli and citrus fruit – all of which are imported from the continent at this time of year,” said a statement from supermarket chain Sainsbury’s.

In a televised news conference Monday evening, Mr. Johnson said British and French officials had been working on a solution and that freight was beginning to move. The backup of trucks had been cut to 170, he added, and delays were only affecting around 20 per cent of food imports.

Mr. Johnson said he’d held discussions with French President Emmanuel Macron and hoped to fully resolve the issues as quickly as possible. Mr. Macron is believed to be demanding that truck drivers be tested for the virus before they enter France, something Mr. Johnson has resisted.

“We in the U.K. fully understand the anxieties of our friends about COVID, their anxieties about the new variant,” Mr. Johnson said. “But it’s also true that we believe the risk of transmission by a solitary driver sitting alone in the cab are really very low.”

The BBC cited France’s Europe Minister Clément Beaune as saying that Britain and France would announce a deal to restart freight by Wednesday.

“We speak to our colleagues in France constantly on a range of issues and that work has been underway over the last 24 hours and we’ll continue today,” British Home Secretary Priti Patel told Sky News Tuesday morning. “We’ll see what materializes today.”

Mr. Johnson also tried to reassure other world leaders that Britain acted swiftly in identifying the variant and explaining its dangers. The government has also moved to control the outbreak by introducing a near total lockdown for London and other parts of England, he added.

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Mr. Johnson added that more than 500,000 people across Britain have received the first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine and that British scientists had been working closely the World Health Organization to monitor the variant. “We want to work with our friends around the world, as we have from the beginning, to develop new treatments and to develop new vaccines,” he said.

The global backlash has prompted some disgruntlement in the British media that the country was being punished for its openness about the variant. Britain has become a world leader in tracking mutations of COVID-19 and it was through that work that the variant was uncovered.

Scientists said they began looking into the variant in mid-December after infections in Kent, outside London, failed to drop despite a month-long lockdown in November. That led them to discover the variant, which contains 22 mutations that appear to make it easier for the virus to infiltrate human cells.

“We were simply the first – most advanced – country to recognize it. Yet our most important port has been shut down by an almost Trumpian response from the French,” wrote Tom Harwood, a columnist in the Daily Telegraph.

Britain had already been bracing for border issues because of Brexit, which has yet to be resolved. The country left the EU last January but remains inside the bloc’s single market, which guarantees the free movement of goods and people. That ends on Dec. 31 and both sides have been negotiating a deal to cover trade, security and other issues. The talks have stalled and if no agreement is reached, trade will be conducted on World Trade Organization rules, which could mean border checks and high tariff and non-tariff barriers.

On Monday several business leaders and politicians, including Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, called on Mr. Johnson to extend the Dec. 31 deadline in light of the crisis over the new variant. EU officials have also urged an extension and argued that time was running out for the European Parliament to ratify an agreement before Jan. 1.

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But Mr. Johnson made it clear he won’t give in. He told reporters that while he wanted a deal, “WTO terms would be entirely satisfactory and ‘prosper mightily’ remains an extremely good description of life after Jan. 1.”

- With a file from Reuters

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