For Britain, an early taste of Brexit while borders are sealed

LONDON – Christmas plans canceled. Many flights from the island were stopped. And lawmakers called for the cultivation of new land to support the nation’s food supply, evoking images of plates full of root vegetables.

Britain, recently christened a pro-Brexit MP as “Treasure Island” for its riches, won another nickname on Monday as a new variant of the coronavirus tore the country apart and blocked borders. sale: Pest Island.

While dozens of nations have banned British travel, stifling some of the busiest routes to and from Britain by road, air and sea, the British have become enraged at their own government’s balancing plans, which suddenly put a blockade in much of the south-east of the country, including London, this weekend.

And they complained that they had to fight a new and potentially more transmissible variant of the virus, even as they prepared for the chaos that was approaching the division of the country with the European Union in 10 days.

“We had better times,” said Tom Henderson, a 29-year-old concert promoter modestly, as he talked about canceling a Christmas visit with his family in the south of England and his industry. disintegrates into a pandemic.

On a damp, gray day in London, he said he was relieved to believe that, contrary to the gloomy predictions, “this is not a New Year’s Eve movie in which the world will end.”

However, for the British who were already preparing for the country to end its messy divorce from the European Union on December 31, the sudden feeling of being drifting out of the bloc – and the world at large – felt like a bitter taste of what it might come.

Supermarket giants warned of a shortage of fruits and vegetables. Freight trucks were stranded near ports. People trying to leave the UK for their homes in another part of Europe before travel bans came into force were, in some cases, detained for long stretches at airports.

And while Britain and France took action Monday to minimize food supply threats – about a quarter of all food consumed in the UK is produced in the European Union – many people in the UK have seen the travel ban and closing ports as their worst fears. about the post-Brexit fate of their country come true.

And sooner than expected.

“Psychologically for me, that barrier already existed because of Brexit,” said Russell Hazel, who had been ill with the virus for seven weeks earlier this year. “Now, there’s a physical one.”

Mr. Hazel said a good friend was visiting Spain. Now he worries about how his friend will get home.

The confusion, Mr Hazel said, feels like a “race” for Britain to leave the European Union without an agreement to regulate future trade in the English Channel.

The British have largely blamed Prime Minister Boris Johnson for their troubles.

After blocking Britain later than other European countries in the spring, a decision that led to one of the highest per capita death rates in Europe caused by the virus, Mr Johnson’s government encouraged people over the summer to return to their offices. He even subsidized restaurant meals.

This helped set the stage for the virus to reappear.

Even so, on Wednesday, Mr. Johnson had pledged to comply with a special Christmas travel allowance policy. The streets of London were full of shoppers. And the government has taken legal action to prevent schools from sending students home early for the holidays amid growing infections.

The decision was called into question Monday after government scientific advisers said there were signs that children might be more susceptible to the new variant of the virus.

Kelly Merris, who is originally from Australia, said that talking to family and friends there was clear how much more reckless Britain had dealt with the virus.

“I think the rest of the world is looking at us and shaking their heads,” said Ms Merris, who had long ago canceled plans to return to Australia for Christmas. “It’s not a good idea to be on a plague island and other countries won’t want you.”

Her husband, Aaron McDonald, who is also Australian, said British exceptionalism took on a different meaning during the pandemic.

“The UK is often seen as slightly different from the rest of the world and continental Europe,” he said. “It simply came to our notice then. It is very disappointing. “

The British government had begun warning about the new option a few days before changing its so-called amnesty policy for Christmas travel, leaving many people frustrated that they had to cancel their plans at the last minute.

Others had more urgent concerns, such as whether an older relative they could no longer visit could make new arrangements for food delivery or home care during the holidays.

But some Britons have said that cascading bans are partly the price Britain has paid for its long-running effort to secede from the European Union.

“If you ask for Brexit, this is what you get,” Suraya Klein-Smith said as she waited in line at a butcher’s for months. “Why should Europeans have any kind of empathy or agreements with us?”

An airline flight attendant who has watched many of her friends lose their jobs this year, Ms Klein-Smith said she sympathizes with Londoners who rushed to leave the city on Saturday, shortly after Mr Johnson told people to stay home. She said many people, already taking precautions through self-isolation, were desperate to see their families.

But the government itself deserves no sympathy, she said, adding she hopes Mr Johnson will resign by January.

“They made sure people spent their money in stores, getting ready, getting train tickets,” she said. “Canceling it at the last minute is just shambolic.”

Some Londoners said worries about the new variant only confirmed what they already knew: people have socialized far too much lately to travel home safely for Christmas.

“We’ve been way too busy socially for the last few weeks,” said Bruce McCombie, who hasn’t seen his family in Scotland in a year and canceled a planned home visit. “He wasn’t sensitive.”

Piers Storey, a teacher, laughed out loud when asked about European countries’ decision to stop traveling to the UK.

“What can you say?” he said. “Nothing feels as isolating as Brexit.”