‘Jingle Hell’: UK mood darkens with new virus strain, Brexit woes

Britons confront travel bans, trade chaos and a scaled-back Christmas as Brexit dramas and COVID-19 batter the country.

The ongoing Brexit transition period comes to an end on December 31, when the UK will exit the European Union’s single market and customs union [Peter Cziborra/Reuters]

London, United Kingdom – Christmas cheer is in short supply in the United Kingdom amid fears over a new strain of the novel coronavirus, continued uncertainty over Brexit and a government ban on festivities to limit further contagion.

Summing up the mounting sense of gloom, national newspapers this week plastered their front pages with warnings the UK was the “sick man of Europe” and branded the late-December chaos a “jingle hell”.

“The country is not just fearful but angry, and that’s a dangerous combination,” Saurav Dutt, a 38-year old author from London, told Al Jazeera. “With Brexit, there is a palpable sense that people really don’t know what is going on.

“And there is [also] real frustration at the haphazard, directionless, frequently illogical and reactive stance of the government in dealing with the pandemic.”

Several countries have shut their borders to travellers from the UK due to rising global alarm over the new virus strain, leaving more than 1,500 trucks stranded in the country’s southeast, unable to cross into France and the European Union, and prompting warnings from supermarkets of impending food shortages.

According to Sainsbury’s, a major UK supermarket, lettuce and other fresh produce could soon run out – a warning that has sparked yet another round of panic buying.

Global travel bans and the sight of trucks loaded with goods destined for Europe stacked up on UK roads “only add to the sense of separation” felt by many ahead of the imminent rupture with its largest trading partner and closest neighbour, said Dutt.

“The anger of Britons not being able to travel will only add to that,” he said.

As for Christmas being cancelled, “it really sours the end of the year, and does not bode well for 2021”, he said.

But some Britons had sympathy with officials, who are confronting a challenge unprecedented in modern history.

“The facts are, there’s are virus doing the rounds and every government has to first and foremost protect its citizens,” 42-year-old Sacha Jacobsen told Al Jazeera.

Jacobsen, a marketing director from Manchester, added he felt the UK would emerge from the pandemic’s grip “sooner than most” given the country’s early mass vaccination drive.

More than 500,000 people have been given a dose of the recently-approved Pfizer-BioNTech jab as part of the immunisation programme, which began on December 8.

“The government has done what it could,” he said.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Monday the pandemic was being “steadily defeated by an international response” in which the UK was playing a “full part”.

But his government has been repeatedly accused of mishandling the pandemic, starting with his decision to lock down the UK later than other European countries as it erupted across the continent in the spring.

The country’s overall death toll from COVID-19 now stands at more than 67,000 people – the second-highest in Europe, behind Italy.

Meanwhile, COVID continues to surge. The new strain – considered to be up to 70 percent more infectious – is ripping through the capital, London, and swaths of the surrounding southeast.

This rising caseload was why Johnson went back on his planned relaxation of lockdown measures over the Christmas period at the eleventh hour, and instead imposed stricter restrictions on tens of millions of people.

Deepening the sense of uncertainty, talks of a trade deal between London and Brussels remain stalled.

Both sides are now rapidly running out of time to avert a messy divorce when the Brexit transition period comes to an end on December 31 and the UK exits the European Union’s single market and customs union.

The saga has left many Britons sombre, disappointed and furious at the tumultuous end of a testing 12 months which have seen their country struggle to reposition itself on the global stage.

Johnson has attempted to reassure his country, telling reporters the UK government was working with the World Health Organization over the new virus strain.

And taking up the issue of his country’s recent isolation, the prime minister said he was coordinating with French President Emmanuel Macron to unblock the UK’s flow of trade with the EU as fast as possible.

At the time of publishing, parked trucks on the M20, the motorway that will eventually take them to the port of Dover and onward to France, stretched for miles.

Source: Al Jazeera