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‘So far so good’ on Brexit day one as border posts await tougher tests

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The UK’s first full day in 47 years outside the EU’s single market and customs union was marked on Friday by a smooth flow of traffic through all-but empty ports on both sides of the country’s main frontiers, as many hauliers held off making shipments to let new customs requirements bed down.

Operations were largely calm despite some evident confusion outside the Port of Dover where police officers turned away large numbers of drivers who had not yet fulfilled the requirement — separate from the customs process — of producing a negative Covid-19 test before travelling to France. Some drivers there expressed frustration at the new customs bureaucracy.

The post-Brexit trade deal agreed by Boris Johnson with Brussels on Christmas Eve guarantees tariff and quota free trading arrangements with the UK’s biggest export partner but the agreement will still usher in a wave of new red tape and bureaucracy for companies doing business with the EU.

Exporters and importers must now make a customs declaration before sending goods across the English Channel or Irish Sea, although port officials at the main transport hubs agreed on Friday that the new processes and systems would be more rigorously tested in coming weeks.

Jean-Michel Thillier, a customs official in the Hauts-de-France region, said it had been “so far so good” using new “smart border” technology that allows logistics companies to complete customs declarations ahead of time. By mid-day in Calais, about 200 trucks had made the crossing into France, he said.

Most vehicles are allowed to proceed without stopping on arrival at ferry ports or the Eurotunnel terminal, while those missing paperwork or flagged as potentially problematic can be taken aside for additional checks.

In Calais, less than 10 per cent of the lorries that crossed in the morning were stopped for checks, officials said.

“Today is a very light day so it’s too early to say how the new systems will perform,” added Mr Thillier. “It’ll take two or three weeks to really judge but I am feeling confident that the measures taken will work.”

The UK formally left the EU customs union and internal market with the end of the post-Brexit transition period at 11pm UK time on Thursday, but a protocol to avoid checks on the Irish border keeps Northern Ireland tied to EU customs requirements. 

Séamus Leheny, Northern Ireland policy manager with Logistics UK, a trade body, said six of the 15 trucks that arrived in the Port of Belfast on the first sailing from Great Britain were selected for inspection by officials. While the process seemed to work “pretty seamlessly” on Friday, it would be far more thoroughly tested when traffic levels returned to closer to normal, he said.

“It’s going to be fairly quiet for the first couple of days because a lot of traders have either stockpiled or stepped back to see how it turns out in the first few days,” Mr Leheny said. “So we won’t really see the full extent of it until next week.

Signage directs trucks to border ready and not border ready lanes at Holyhead ferry terminal in Wales © Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

At the UK end of the Channel Tunnel in Folkestone, trucks travelling to France passed through a new “pit-stop” area where staff from Getlink, the tunnel’s operator, conducted safety checks and ensured that drivers could produce a valid customs declaration. The process was taking only a few seconds per vehicle.

Development of pit-stop areas at both the French and English ends of the tunnel has been part of a total of €47m of investments by Getlink to build facilities to cope with the new customs system. The ports of Calais and Boulogne-sur-Mer, in France, have invested €13m in new facilities.

Nevertheless, there were some teething problems. The port of Holyhead, in north Wales, said six trucks had been turned away because drivers lacked the pre-boarding notification required from Irish Revenue for shipments heading to the Irish Republic. Holyhead is the busiest UK port for crossings to Ireland.

Meanwhile, at Dover, the world’s busiest ferry port, traffic periodically backed up as police redirected drivers who had no proof of a negative coronavirus test to Manston airport, 20 miles away, the holding site where the tests are being conducted.

A Spanish driver, who complained that the new process was difficult, said he had to wait three hours at his company’s offices while the customs declaration was completed. A clearly frustrated Italian driver described the process as “a little mess”, although the next driver in the line insisted very little had actually changed and the customs process was “normal”.

Everyone concerned stressed, however, that the volumes of traffic moving were tiny compared with peak levels. The Port of Dover, where there were vast areas of empty tarmac in place of the normal queues of trucks waiting for ferries, said just 2,237 trucks had passed through in the 24 hours to 7am on Friday, compared with an average of more than 6,000 trucks a day during 2019.

Olivier Dussopt, the French minister responsible for customs, said: “It’s only the beginning so we must be prudent. We cannot control what happens on the British side of the border, so if there are traffic backups because of lack of preparation or adaptation there, then unfortunately we will all be victims.”



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CDU leadership backs Armin Laschet’s bid to be German chancellor

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Armin Laschet won a key victory in his campaign to succeed Angela Merkel when the party he leads, the Christian Democratic Union, backed him as their candidate for chancellor in September’s Bundestag election.

The CDU governing executive’s decision to back Laschet was a setback for Markus Söder, governor of Bavaria, who has also laid claim to the title.

The move was expected, but could prove controversial. Söder is by far the more popular politician, and many CDU MPs had argued in recent days that the party would have a much better chance of winning September’s election with Söder as their candidate.

After throwing his hat into the ring on Sunday, Söder said he would accept the CDU’s decision. However, it is still unclear whether his party, the Bavarian Christian Social Union, will accept Laschet as the CDU/CSU’s joint candidate. The CSU’s executive is meeting later on Monday.

Sunday’s events threw the process for finding a successor to Merkel, who will step down this year after 16 years as Germany’s leader, into confusion. The CDU and CSU traditionally field a joint candidate for chancellor: that person is usually the leader of the CDU, which is by far the larger party.

Volker Bouffier, governor of the western state of Hesse, said the CDU’s executive had unanimously backed Laschet at a meeting in Berlin on Monday morning. He added, however, that no formal decision had been made on the issue.

Bouffier said the executive had made clear “that we consider [Laschet] exceptionally well-suited and asked him to discuss together with Markus Söder how we proceed”. He added that “the current polls should not determine the decision over [who we choose as] candidate”.

Since Laschet was elected CDU leader in January, the party has suffered a precipitous slump in the polls and that created an opening for Söder. He has frequently argued that the CDU/CSU’s joint candidate should be the politician with the best chances of winning in September.

Voters have blamed the CDU for the government’s recent missteps in its handling of the coronavirus pandemic, in particular the slow pace of Covid-19 vaccinations. Revelations that a number of CDU and CSU MPs earned huge commissions on deals to procure face masks also badly damaged the party’s image.

The malaise in the CDU was highlighted last month when it slumped to its worst ever election results in the two states of Baden-Württemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate, which for decades had been Christian Democrat strongholds. National polls currently put support for the CDU/CSU at between 26 per cent and 28 per cent, way down on the 33 per cent it garnered in the last Bundestag election in 2017.

There was more bad news at the weekend for Laschet, who as well as being CDU leader is also prime minister of North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany’s most populous state. A poll for broadcaster WDR in NRW found that only 26 per cent of voters in the state are satisfied with the work of the regional government Laschet leads and only 24 per cent of voters consider him a suitable candidate for chancellor.

The slide in the CDU’s fortunes contrasts with the rise of the Greens. The party garnered 8.9 per cent of the vote in 2017 and is now polling at 23 per cent. It is seen as a racing certainty that it will be part of Germany’s next government.



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EU and UK edge towards accord on trade rules for Northern Ireland

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The UK and the EU are making progress in talks on how to apply post-Brexit trade rules in Northern Ireland, raising hopes of an agreement that could help reduce tensions that have spilled over into violence on the streets of Belfast.

Officials on both sides said that recent days of intensive contacts had given cause for optimism that the UK and EU can craft a “work plan” on how to implement the Northern Ireland protocol, which sets the post-Brexit terms for goods to flow between the region and Great Britain. EU Brexit commissioner Maros Sefcovic and his UK counterpart David Frost may meet to review progress this week. 

“They are advancing on a technical level and probably we will see a [Frost-Sefcovic] meeting rather sooner than later”, said one EU diplomat, while cautioning progress depended on firm commitments from the UK and its “unequivocal support” for the Brexit withdrawal agreement.

Other EU diplomats and officials said strong UK engagement in the technical talks on implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol had raised hopes that an understanding could be reached. 

“The mood seems to have warmed up a bit — the tone of the discussions is quite good,” said one British official. 

The talks are a follow up to a draft plan about implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol that was submitted by the UK to Brussels at the end of last month — a step the EU said was essential to rebuilding trust after Britain unilaterally extended waivers for traders from some aspects of the rules in March. This move prompted EU legal action.

The discussions between British and EU officials in recent days have taken place against the backdrop of violence in Northern Ireland, stoked in part by resentment within the unionist community at how the protocol treats their region differently to the rest of the UK.

From April 2 there were eight consecutive nights of unrest in Northern Ireland, involving both unionist and nationalist areas. The police responded by deploying water cannons for the first time in six years.

The Brexit deal placed a trade border down the Irish Sea in order to keep commerce seamless on the island of Ireland. The Northern Ireland protocol requires customs and food safety checks for goods entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain.

Officials said the EU-UK talks now under way about implementation of the protocol cover a wide array of practical issues ranging from trade in steel and medicines to the policing of food safety standards, how to deal with residual soil on plant bulbs, and the construction of border inspection posts. 

“Technical talks are ongoing”, said an EU official. “Depending on the progress made at technical level, a political-level meeting may be held soon.”

But EU diplomats and officials also cautioned that more work remains to be done, especially on the thorny issue of applying food safety checks. Difficult talks also lie ahead on the timetable for putting particular measures in place.

Meanwhile Downing Street played down a report in The Observer that it was resisting proposals by Dublin for a special crisis summit to address the outbreak of violence in Northern Ireland.

“We have not refused anything,” said a Number 10 official. “It’s something we will consider.”

However there are concerns on the British side about the wisdom of holding a summit in Northern Ireland with Irish government ministers at a time when pro-UK loyalist groups have been engaged in street violence.

Irish officials said taoiseach Micheál Martin and British prime minister Boris Johnson have spoken and would “maintain close contact over coming days”.



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France to offer mRNA jabs as second dose after AstraZeneca 

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France has become the second country after Germany to recommend that younger people who have had a first dose of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine be given a different jab for their follow-up shot.

The mixed-dose approach has been recommended by health experts in both countries — despite there being little clinical trial data to support it — because of the slim risk that younger people can develop blood clots when given the AstraZeneca jab.

The World Health Organization reiterated its position on Friday that there was “no data on interchangeability of vaccine platforms”, noting further research was needed.

The move comes as the European Medicines Agency said it is also probing a possible link between the Johnson & Johnson vaccine and four serious cases of unusual blood clots in the US, where it is currently being rolled out. It is not yet being distributed in the EU or UK. The vaccine is based on an adenovirus vector, similar to the AstraZeneca shot.

The EMA said it was not yet clear whether there was a causal link. J&J said it is working with experts and regulators to assess the data. “Our close tracking of side effects has revealed a small number of very rare events following vaccination,” it said. “At present, no clear causal relationship has been established.” 

In France, the policy will affect roughly 530,000 people under age 55 who were given a first shot of AstraZeneca from early February to mid-March when they were eligible under its strategy of giving healthcare workers the vaccine, while reserving the mRNA vaccines for elderly people most at risk.

The Haute Autorité de Santé, a panel of medical experts which advises the government, has said they should be given booster shots from BioNTech/Pfizer or Moderna. France has changed course to use AstraZeneca only in people aged above 55 since the blood clot issue emerged.

France announced its decision on Friday after the HAS recommended the mixed-dose strategy. Germany took a similar stance in early April. 

Health minister Olivier Véran told RTL radio on Friday that the mixed-dose approach was “totally logical” given the analysis of European regulators and France’s desire to continue its vaccination campaign as the scientific evidence evolved.

European countries, whose vaccination campaigns have been slower than world leaders such as the US, Israel, and the UK, have been grappling with how to use AstraZeneca doses since the blood clot reports emerged, with some countries applying new age restrictions and others pausing its use entirely.

But with Covid-19 still spreading, officials are also seeking to reassure people that the AstraZeneca vaccine’s benefits still largely outweigh the risks. 

The European Medicines Agency recently established that there was a “possible link” between the AstraZeneca vaccine and unusual blood clots with low blood platelets that have mostly affected women under 60 years old, though regulators have said there is no specific risk factor by gender.

The EMA said it had examined at least 86 such reported cases and 16 deaths, and recommended updating the vaccine’s safety information to list the clots as a possible side effect.

Élisabeth Bouvet, a vaccine expert and member of the HAS, said on Friday that the mixed-dose approach was a practical solution intended to protect younger people, who are at lower risk of developing severe forms of Covid-19, from the risk of blood clotting side effects. “It is really a choice based on safety,” she said.

“Given that the protection of the Covid-19 vaccines begins to diminish after three months, these people need an additional dose,” she added. “The idea is to give mRNA vaccine as a second dose for this population in a ‘prime-boost’ strategy.”

Even in the absence of clinical data, Bouvet said that they believed the approach carried low risks of side effects and was likely to offer people additional protection given that the Covid-19 vaccines all aim at the same spike protein on the coronavirus.

“We think that this approach will work,” she said. “There is no reason to expect any particular side effects with mixed dosing but it would be good to study the immune response it creates.” 

Peter English, a retired Public Health England consultant in communicable disease control, said it was “reasonable” to use other vaccines, particularly in younger patients, until the risk of blood clots caused by the AstraZeneca vaccine has been clarified.

“If we are to achieve vaccine-induced herd immunity [not just through masks and social distancing] a high uptake of vaccination will be required in the groups most likely to spread the virus, not just in those most at risk if infected,” he said, noting vaccine mixing and matching has been done for other diseases. 

Trials studying a combination of vaccines, including AstraZeneca’s and Russia’s Sputnik V shots, are under way.



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