FRANCE has shut its borders to UK hauliers for 48 hours in response to the spread of the new coronavirus variant in south-east England.
The English Channel is usually busy trade route at Christmas time, with fresh produce shipped back and forth in around 10,000 lorries a day travelling between Dover and Calais. France's shutdown hits both UK exporters sending goods into mainland Europe, and EU produce coming here, as European hauliers may avoid coming to the UK for fear of not being allowed to return.
At time of writing, France's transport minister has said that protocols are being put in place that will soon allow movement from the UK to resume, and UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson was due to make a statement.
However, this sudden crisis, days before Christmas, has come as a sobering reminder that, as of January 1, UK hauliers will no longer have an automatic right to cross European borders, and unilateral blockades like that imposed by France because of the Covid-19 variant may become more common.
The Scottish livestock industry was today braced for 'volatility' as a result of the port closure.
Institute of Auctioneers and Appraisers in Scotland executive director, Neil Wilson, commented: “Auction marts and auctioneers across Scotland are continuing to liaise closely with the key industry representatives and the Scottish Government to ensure they remain fully briefed about the supply and demand in the red meat chain during these uncertain times.
“The impact of the EU border restrictions over the last 24 hours, as well as what might follow with Brexit, will no doubt drive some volatility within the industry, particularly around demand for produce and market prices.
“As we enter the Christmas and New Year period, there is a reduced sales calendar, as is the case in any year, and will resume from early in the New Year; this reduced number of sales could help limit any drop in price and steady up volume," said Mr Wilson.
“However, we must note that, despite the pandemic and uncertainties around Brexit, prime and store lamb prices have remained buoyant this year, so there remains an element of confidence in the sector.
“Right now, we are in a very frustrating place and our advice for farmers is to stay in touch with their local auction marts and auctioneers who will do their best to guide you through the uncertainties that the start of 2021 is inevitably going to bring.”
On Monday, Scotland Food and Drink chief executive, James Withers, implored the UK Government to take urgent action to allow access to the market for millions of pounds worth of Scottish food and drink exports. 
“We need the ban on freight moving across the English Channel lifted in the next 24 hours so products can start moving by Tuesday morning at the latest. We have heard from companies with dozens of lorries now stuck, having travelled overnight to Dover or the Eurotunnel which are now shut to incoming traffic. They are carrying perishable products worth millions and the clock is ticking for that product to survive these delays. We estimate there will be over £5 million of Scottish food that would be been heading into France daily this week.
“The timing of this could scarcely be worse for many businesses. There are critically important markets scheduled for Wednesday in France and Spain as part of the big pre-Christmas sales rush. As things stand, Scottish seafood exports will not reach them, which will compound the losses businesses have already suffered as a result of Covid this year. We are also aware of some red meat shipments affected. In addition, businesses importing ingredients and fresh products will be hugely concerned if this lasts longer than 48 hours and incoming freight is disrupted because drivers won’t risk getting stuck in the UK," said Mr Withers.
“I entirely understand the concerns of France and others about this new strain of Covid-19. We’re all worried about it. However, France stands alone in introducing a freight ban, other EU countries have just focussed on restriction the travel of the general public. We need the UK Government to urgently agree a protocol for freight movements, with perhaps the testing of drivers able to provide the necessary reassurance.
"This latest development must result in a Brexit rethink too," added Mr Withers. "For two months we have been calling for a delay to new Brexit checks on exports. The UK Government has to recognise that we are in the midst of a perfect storm and to risk further disruption and financial damage to businesses in just 10 days’ time is completely unacceptable. The new checks due to come into force at the end of the transition period must now be delayed. Everything has changed.”
According to the Scottish Government’s export figures (released last week), France remains the single largest importer of Scottish food and drink products. Exports to France for the first nine months of 2020 are already down 11.3% on the same period the previous the year. 
In 2019 Scotland sold £1.2 billion of food to the EU, the majority of which went through English Channel routes facing the current blockage.
Commenting on the border closures, Quality Meat Scotland chief executive, Alan Clarke, said: “Businesses across Scotland’s red meat supply chain rely upon quick, convenient access to sea border crossings to and from UK ports. They are prepared to do their part in complying with any new checks and procedures to ensure Scotch produce held at Dover can be enjoyed over the festive period and what they need in return is for government to find a resolution regarding freight coming into and out of the UK during the pandemic.
“QMS will be keeping daily contact with businesses to monitor the situation as it evolves and will be consulting with government and other stakeholders to ensure they have the support and guidance needed.”