Virus dampens holidays worldwide

LONDON (AFP) – Thousands of truckers endured the holiday eve stranded near a major British port, ensnared in the chaos unleashed by a new coronavirus strain, as Western nations accelerated vaccination programmes.

European nations on Wednesday had started easing travel bans on Britain to contain a new coronavirus strain that the United Kingdom (UK) officials believe spreads faster, with thousands of lorry drivers stranded in Britain.

But some truckers feared there was little chance of making it across the Channel in time for the holidays, which have been marred around the world because of the pandemic.

“Home for the holidays? Forget it,” said Laurent Beghin, a French driver who delivered his cargo of paint on Sunday but was still stuck in England as of Wednesday.

Scuffles broke out between police and truckers complaining of poor facilities and a lack of virus tests at one lorry park in southern England.

Passengers with negative virus tests on Wednesday also boarded the first Eurostar trains from London to France since border closures were introduced on Sunday, eager to spend the holidays with their families.

The new strain of the virus, which has also been detected in small numbers elsewhere, appears to spread more easily than other types but experts said there is no evidence it is more lethal or resistant to vaccines.

The co-founder of BioNTech – which developed a coronavirus vaccine with Pfizer – has said their prophylactic is “highly likely” to work against the new strain.

Fears over the strain, however, and surging coronavirus infections in general across the continent have severely dampened the mood over the holiday season in many countries.

The European Union (EU) is preparing to kick off vaccinations across the bloc on Sunday, hoping to turn the corner in the fight against the virus, which has infected more than 78 million people worldwide with over 1.7 million deaths.

The United States (US) – the worst-hit country in the world – has already started inoculations, and its Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced that more than one million people have been vaccinated.

CDC Director Robert Redfield said it was “an early but important milestone”, but officials admitted that the roll-out was behind schedule.

Even as vaccines are rolled out, many parts of the world are in the grip of worrying waves of infections, forcing governments to re-impose restrictions – including lockdowns of varying intensity – and severely curtail celebrations and gatherings over the holidays.

Despite a new cluster of cases, Australia’s biggest city Sydney still plans to celebrate the start of 2021 with its famous Harbour Bridge fireworks – but people are being encouraged to watch it on TV at home.

Egypt has called off all New Year’s celebrations in order to stem a rise in cases. In the Philippines, many are choosing to spend the holiday alone instead of visiting family over fears of catching the virus or quarantine rules that make travelling expensive and cumbersome.

“Spending the holiday alone is odd because we know it as time to be with family,” said Kim Patria, 31, who lives alone in Manila and decided not to travel to see her loved ones.

“What’s clear I think is that this is a different holiday, whether you spend it with family or alone.”