Rescuers hunt for survivors after cyclone kills 119 in Indonesia

By Agustinus Beo Da Costa

JAKARTA (Reuters) – Rescuers searched for dozens missing in the remote islands of southeast Indonesia on Tuesday, as reinforcements arrived to help in the aftermath of a tropical cyclone that killed at least 119 people.

Helicopters were deployed to aid the search, and ships carrying food, water, blankets and medicine reached ports previously blocked by high waves whipped up by tropical cyclone Seroja, which brought heavy rain and triggered deadly floods and landslides on Sunday.

Indonesia’s disaster agency BNPB revised upwards the death toll from the cyclone in the East Nusa Tenggara islands, after earlier saying 86 had died. Seventy-six people were still missing.

“The rescue team is moving on the ground. The weather is good,” BNPB spokesman Raditya Jati told a news briefing.

Search and rescue personnel, however, had trouble transporting heavy equipment for use in the search.

“Search for victims is constrained, the existing heavy equipment cannot be sent to their destination, especially in Adonara and Alor,” the head of BNPB, Doni Monardo, said.

The Adonara and Alor islands were among the islands worst hit by the cyclone, with 62 and 21 people dead respectively.

Aerial images from Adonara on Tuesday showed brown mud and flood water covering a vast area, burying houses, roads and trees.

The military and volunteers arrived on the islands on Tuesday and were setting up public kitchens, while medical workers were brought in.

Video taken by a local official in Tanjung Batu village on Lembata, home to the Ile Lewotolok volcano, showed felled trees and large rocks of cold lava that had crushed homes after being dislodged by the cyclone.

Thousands of people have been displaced, nearly 2,000 buildings including a hospital were impacted, and more than 100 homes heavily damaged by the cyclone.

Two people died in nearby West Nusa Tenggara province.

There were also concerns about possible COVID-19 infections in crowded evacuation centers.

In neighboring East Timor, at least 33 were killed in floods and landslides and by falling trees. Civil defense authorities were using heavy equipment to search for survivors.

“The number of victims could still increase because many victims have not been found,” the main director of civil protection, Ismael da Costa Babo, told Reuters.

“They were buried by landslides and carried away by floods.”

Some residents of Lembata island may have also been washed away by mud into the sea.

A volcano that erupted on Lembata last month wiped out vegetation atop the mountain, which allowed hardened lava to slide towards 300 houses when the cyclone struck, a senior district official said, hoping help was on the way.

“We were only able to search on the seashore, not in the deeper area, because of lack of equipment yesterday,” Thomas Ola Langoday told Reuters by phone.

He feared many bodies were still buried under large rocks.

President Joko Widodo urged his cabinet to speed up evacuation and relief efforts and to restore power.

Weather agency head Dwikorita Karnawati said once-rare tropical cyclones were happening more often in Indonesia and climate change could be to blame.

“Seroja is the first time we’re seeing tremendous impact because it hit the land. It’s not common,” she said.

(Reporting by Agustinus Beo Da Costa, Stanley Widianto and Bernadette Christina Munthe in Jakarta and Nelson Da Cruz in Dili; Writing by Gayatri Suroyo and Fathin Ungku; Editing by Martin Petty, Tom Hogue and Bernadette Baum)

G7 countries urge independent probe into alleged rights abuses in Ethiopia’s Tigray

By Foo Yun Chee

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – The United States, Germany, France and other G7 countries called on Friday for an independent and transparent investigation into alleged human rights abuses during the conflict in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region.

Ethiopia’s federal army ousted the former regional ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), from the capital Mekelle in November.

Thousands of people died, hundreds of thousands have been forced from their homes and there are shortages of food, water and medicine in the region. The government says most fighting has ceased but there are still isolated incidents of shooting.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed said last week Eritrea has agreed to withdraw troops it had sent during the fighting into Ethiopian territory along their mutual border, amid mounting reports of human rights abuses. Eritrea has denied its forces joined the conflict.

The G7 foreign ministers of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States and EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell expressed their concerns in a joint statement.

“All parties must exercise utmost restraint, ensure the protection of civilians and respect human rights and international law,” they said.

“It is essential that there is an independent, transparent and impartial investigation into the crimes reported and that those responsible for these human rights abuses are held to account,” the ministers said.

They said the withdrawal of Eritrean forces from Tigray must be swift, unconditional and verifiable and that a political process acceptable to all Ethiopians should be set up that leads to credible elections and a national reconciliation process.

Ethiopia’s foreign ministry said in March it was ready to work with international human rights experts to conduct investigations on allegations of abuses.

(Reporting by Foo Yun Chee; Editing by Peter Graff)

Australian floods kill two, more evacuations as clean-up begins

By Renju Jose and Jonathan Barrett

SYDNEY (Reuters) -The bodies of two men were found in Australia on Wednesday in cars trapped in floodwaters, the first deaths linked to wild weather in recent days that has submerged houses, swept away livestock and cut off entire towns.

More than 40,000 people have been forced to flee their homes as torrential rain sparked dangerous flash floods, and authorities issued new evacuation orders for residents of Sydney’s western regions to move to safety.

In some other areas, a massive clean-up operation began as sunny skies returned for the first time in days, and food and other emergency supplies were flown in over swamped roads.

Authorities were trying to contact the family of a Pakistani national whose body was found by emergency services in a car under six meters of water in Sydney’s northwest.

Police had determined the man was driving a brand new car, on the first day of a new job and unfamiliar with the rural area, New South Wales Police Detective Inspector Chris Laird told media. The reason he could not get out of the vehicle was being investigated.

“It could very well be that the electrics totally failed and he was simply unable to escape from the car which is an absolute tragedy,” Laird said.

Media reported police found a second body in an upturned utility vehicle in floodwaters in Queensland state.

Gladys Berejiklian, premier of New South Wales, the worst-hit state, warned that water levels would keep rising in some areas as major dams overflowed and rivers bulged, with thousands of people were on evacuation watch.

“Catchments will continue to experience flows of water not seen in 50 years and in some places 100 years,” Berejiklian told reporters in Sydney.

The Insurance Council of Australia, the main industry body, said about 17,000 damages claims worth about A$254.2 million ($193.32 million) had been lodged by Wednesday morning across New South Wales and Queensland.

Homes have been submerged, livestock swept away and crops inundated.

There have also been many animal rescues, with craft used to move dogs, cattle, and even an emu, away from the flood waters. In the country’s arid center, water cascaded down the Uluru rock formation, a rare phenomenon described by the national park as “unique and extraordinary”.

RECOVERY BEGINS

Prime Minister Scott Morrison said heavy-load helicopters would transport food to supermarkets where supplies were running short.

“The expanse of water that went right across that region was quite devastating to see,” Morrison said in parliament after he toured flood-affected areas by helicopter.

Several hundred defense force personnel would be sent to flood-affected areas over the next few days to help in the recovery, said Emergency Management Minister David Littleproud.

“Their job will be out there cleaning up, making sure that we get rid of the debris, having boots on the ground,” Littleproud said.

Australian Rail Track Corp (ARTC) partially reopened Hunter Valley coal rail lines to Newcastle, the world’s biggest coal export port, but not before supply concerns lifted thermal coal prices to two year highs near $100 a tonne.

The Hunter Valley rail network serves mines run by BHP Group, Glencore Plc, New Hope Corp, Whitehaven Coal and Yancoal Australia, among others.

The Port of Newcastle, which last year shipped 158 million tonnes of coal, slowed ship movements this week but said on Wednesday it was continuing to operate.

Forecasters said the weather system that brought the rain would shift to the island state of Tasmania on Wednesday, bringing downpours and flooding.

(Reporting by Renju Jose, Jonathan Barrett, Melanie Burton and Sonali Paul; editing by Grant McCool and Jane Wardell)

Anxious Americans to pay debt, taxes with COVID-19 stimulus checks

By Tim Reid

(Reuters) – Michael Johnson, a construction worker in Washington, D.C., is waiting for the $1,400 check from the government promised after U.S. President Joe Biden signed the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill last week.

He’s not planning a spending spree. He’s nervous. “I’ll try and get ahead on my mortgage a little bit. You know, we are still in this pandemic,” Johnson, 45, said.

Almost 900 miles away in Baraboo, Wisconsin, Aric Nowicki runs a heating and air conditioning business that takes in about $150,000 annually but has expenses of about $100,000. He has clients who are late on their bills, and he plans to use his money to pay his own overdue bills.

“I’m very apprehensive,” Nowicki said. “I’m not sure the vaccines will bring us back to normality. Too many people say they don’t want to take it, and there are these mutations.”

In interviews with a dozen Americans, including a nurse, a man made homeless by the pandemic, a plumber, a teacher, and a bar owner, nearly all say they are so worried about the future that they will use their stimulus checks to pay debt and taxes accumulated in the past year.

Those spending priorities are not what massive stimulus bills are traditionally meant to achieve. They are designed to encourage people to buy goods and services, to help U.S. businesses and create jobs.

Labor economist Diane Swonk sees a divide between those who can work from home and those who cannot – highlighted by the ways Americans have spent their stimulus checks from the government during the year-long coronavirus pandemic.

Consumer spending on goods was quite robust in January, Swonk said. But that was mostly by people who did not necessarily need the three checks sent out by the U.S. Treasury in the past year. Most who desperately needed the money have used it for food, shelter, and to pay debt. “This gets to the issue that a rising tide does not lift all boats,” Swonk said.

White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki was asked on Monday how Biden expected people to spend their stimulus checks.

“They will use it for different means,” Psaki said. “Some Americans will use it to ensure they can put food on the table, that’s a form of stimulus. Some will use it to ensure that they can pay their rent. That’s a form of stimulus. It’s up to family to family.”

Reverend Lee May, the pastor of Transforming Faith Church, an ecumenical Christian church in suburban Atlanta, said members of his congregation “really need this boost.”

“This is intended to help and we feel blessed to have it sent our way, but it isn’t enough to make us whole,” May said. “We know there are prohibitions on evictions and shut offs of utilities for now, but those rent and light bills don’t go away.”

“More needs to be done,” he said.

Reginald Smith, 36, a cook who was laid off in the crisis as many restaurants closed, was waiting in line at the food pantry outside the First Presbyterian Church of Atlanta on Monday.

He lost his place to stay and he has been “couch surfing” at the homes of friends.

“I need a job and hope to get one once this all opens back up,” he said. “But first I need my own place to stay. I’m hoping that this (the stimulus check) will help me make a deposit, get a place and get back on my feet. I wish it was more though. I don’t know if this is enough to dig me out.”

Others are more optimistic. Steve Pitts, the general manager of Manuel’s Tavern in Midtown Atlanta, hopes the stimulus checks will give people more cash to go out.

“We’re hoping it loosens things up a bit,” Pitts said. “To say it’s been a tough year isn’t the half of it. We all need a break. We’ve had to let people go and it hurt. This, of course, isn’t the cure. We’re all waiting for this crisis to be over, but maybe this is a little light, a little bump.”

Thadd Ernstmeyer, who runs a family plumbing business in Reedsburg, Wisconsin, grosses about $150,000 a year, with overheads about one third of that, and is taxed roughly 25%. His stimulus check would go toward his tax bill, Ernstmeyer said.

“It’s going straight back to the government.”

(Reporting by Tim Reid in Washington and Rich McKay in Atlanta; Editing by Donna Bryson and Grant McCool)

Coronavirus crisis in Latin America made worse by poverty, inequality, U.N. agency says

By Fabian Cambero

SANTIAGO (Reuters) – Latin America and the Caribbean countries in the throes of the coronavirus crisis will only see their problems made worse by festering inequality, poverty and an ailing social safety net, a United Nations agency said on Thursday.

The Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) said social unrest was on the rise across the region, a sign that immediate action was necessary to aid hard-hit countries struggling long before the pandemic hit.

“The effects of the coronavirus pandemic have spread to all areas of human life, altering the way we interact, paralyzing economies and generating profound changes in societies,” the report said.

Persistently high levels of inequality, the agency said, combined with a sprawling informal labor market that leaves workers without protection and a lack of effective health care coverage have made those problems worse.

Urban slums on the fringes of many of the region’s cities often lack access to basic services, mean many citizens found themselves unable to access food, water and healthcare necessary to confront the crisis.

Poverty meanwhile, has crept upward, while advances in reducing inequality have stagnated, exacerbating trends seen in the five years prior to the crisis.

During that period, Latin America and Caribbean economies grew an average of just 0.3% per year overall, while extreme poverty increased from 7.8% to 11.3% of the population and poverty, from 27.8% to 30.5%.

The report also said the prolonged closure of schools in the region could constitute a “generational catastrophe” that will only deepen inequality.

The pandemic has also brought a rise in mortality that could push down life expectancy in the region depending how long the crisis endures, the agency said.

There have been at least 21,699,000 reported infections and 687,000 reported deaths caused by the novel coronavirus in Latin America and the Caribbean so far.

​ Of every 100 infections last reported around the world, about 24 were reported from countries in Latin America and the Caribbean.

(Reporting by Fabian Cambero; Writing by Dave Sherwood; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

Power restored to most in Texas after ‘tragic few days’

By Adrees Latif

GALVESTON, Texas (Reuters) – Hundreds of thousands of homes in Texas are coping without heat for a fourth day on Thursday after utilities made some progress restoring power, as the state’s leaders came under mounting criticism for their response to the winter storm.

The crisis facing the country’s second-largest state looked set to continue, with millions of people still without access to water, many struggling to find food, and freezing temperatures expected to last through Saturday.

Judge Lina Hidalgo, the top elected official in Harris County, which encompasses Houston, said the number of homes without power in her county had fallen to 33,000 from 1.4 million a few nights ago.

“It’s definitely a big positive that the power is back on for most of the residents,” Hidalgo said in an interview. “It’s been a miserable few days, a really tragic few days.”

Hidalgo warned that a “hard freeze” Thursday night could cause setbacks and encouraged donations to food banks with some residents struggling to secure food and water. She noted reports of senior centers and other vulnerable communities lacking basic supplies.

At present some 447,000 Texas households were without power, down from around 2.7 million on Wednesday, according to poweroutage.com, a website that tracks outages.

The Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), a cooperative responsible for 90% of the state’s electricity, said on Thursday it made “significant progress” in restoring power. It did not provide detailed figures.

Angry residents have trained much of their ire on ERCOT, which critics say did not heed warnings after a cold-weather meltdown in 2011 to ensure that Texas’ energy infrastructure, which relies primarily on natural gas, was winterized.

Critics have also raised questions about the leadership of Texas Governor Greg Abbott, who has called for an investigation of ERCOT. U.S. Senator Ted Cruz too came under fire for flying to the Mexican resort city of Cancun with his family, despite the storm’s fallout. The Republican lawmaker cut his trip short after his travels were reported, saying he would return to Texas and “get to the bottom of what happened” in his state.

Gary Southern, a 68-year-old real estate broker from Mineral Wells, Texas, said his power was restored on Wednesday afternoon, enabling him to have his first solid night of sleep since he lost electricity in the early hours of Monday.

“It was one of the worst things we’ve ever had to go through,” the lifelong Texan said, adding that he was frustrated at being told there would be rolling blackouts, only to go days without power at all. “I know a lot of people in our community still don’t have it (power) and are frustrated.”

The lack of power has cut off water supplies for millions, further strained hospitals’ ability to treat patients amid a pandemic, and isolated vulnerable communities with frozen roads still impassable in parts of the state.

As of Thursday morning, 154 of the 254 counties in Texas have reported disruptions in water service, affecting 13.2 million people, according to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. Many of those affected have been told they need to boil their water.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) said historically low temperatures were hindering efforts to inoculate people against COVID-19, with more than 2,000 vaccine sites in areas with power outages. In addition to aiding Texas, FEMA said on Thursday it would provide assistance to the neighboring state of Oklahoma due to the weather’s impact on its power grid.

Nearly two dozen deaths have been attributed to the cold snap. Officials say they suspect many more people have died – but their bodies have not been discovered yet.

In Galveston on the Gulf Coast of Texas, a pop-up shelter with heat but no running water had allowed about three dozen people to huddle overnight before they were ushered back out into the cold on Thursday morning to let cleaning crews get it ready to do it all over again on Thursday night.

“When you go to the bathroom, grab a bucket of water to clear the toilet – we’re going old school!” Cesar Garcia, director of Galveston’s Parks and Recreation Department, called out as he oversaw scrubbing of the shelter set up in the McGuire-Dent Recreation Center.

Garcia said he was bracing for a potentially bigger crowd tonight, perhaps closer to the 100 who sought shelter on Monday night, sleeping on bleachers or a gymnasium floor with blankets and whatever they brought with them from home.

“Tonight being the coldest night, we don’t know what to expect,” Garcia said.

While the icy conditions should gradually improve, record low temperatures will likely persist in the South Central region of the United States through Saturday, according to the National Weather Service said, which said the storm was moving northeastward, dropping snow on a swath of states in its path.

(Reporting by Brad Brooks in Lubbock, Texas; Barbara Goldberg in Maplewood, New Jersey; Nathan Layne in Wilton, Connecticut; and Jonathan Allen in New York; Editing by Leslie Adler and Jonathan Oatis)

China says 10 workers trapped in gold mine are searching for others

By Emily Chow

QIXIA, China (Reuters) – The 10 known survivors trapped since a deadly Jan. 10 gold mine explosion in northern China have been using laser pointers and loudspeakers to try to find their missing colleagues, state media reported on Friday.

The rescue operation, which has been able to get food and medicines to the miners, was expected to take at least another two weeks, authorities have said.

White bottles of food and water sent down to the trapped workers had a note stuck on them saying, “We are all waiting for you, keep going!”, photos shared by propaganda department officials with Reuters on Friday showed.

The food items sent to the workers include millet porridge, quail eggs, pickles and sausages and medical supplies included disinfectant, masks and cotton socks.

“The physical condition, psychological condition and living environment of 10 miners in the middle section of the mine are good,” the People’s Daily, the official newspaper of China’s ruling Communist Party, reported on Friday.

“The miners continued to search for other trapped persons through laser pointer projection and loudspeaker shouting,” it said.

A total of 22 workers were trapped in the Hushan mine by the Jan 10 blast in Qixia, a major gold-producing region under the administration of Yantai in coastal Shandong province.

One has died and 11 were not in contact with the rescue teams, according to a Xinhua radio report on Thursday.

At least 15 days may be needed to clear the “severe blockages” as rescuers continued to drill shafts to reach the 10 men, officials said on Thursday.

At the site, security was tight on Friday and Reuters journalists were not permitted to get close to the rescue operation.

Workers in orange high visibility clothing could be seen operating heavy machinery. At the entrance to the site, a medical tent had been set up to administer COVID tests for rescue workers.

About 570 people are involved in the rescue, the newspaper said.

China’s mines are among the world’s deadliest. It has recorded 573 mine-related deaths in 2020, according to the National Mine Safety Administration.

(Reporting by Emily Chow in Qixia and Beijing newsroom; Writing by Shivani Singh; Editing by Tony Munroe and Philippa Fletcher)

Americans give to charity like never before amid pandemic

By Jonnelle Marte

(Reuters) – Hundreds of cars line up before dawn on weekly distribution days for the Forgotten Harvest’s partner food pantries in the metro Detroit area, where visits are up by 50% this year.

The need has grown as the coronavirus pandemic has shut down offices and other businesses. So has the response.

Monetary donations to the food bank are on pace to top last year’s contributions, helping to fund a larger storage space and new mobile distribution sites required to distribute food safely during the crisis.

“The only good thing about this pandemic is that it’s made people care a little bit more about their neighbors,” said Christopher Ivey, director of marketing for Forgotten Harvest, one of the largest food banks in Michigan.

The economic crisis set off by the pandemic has widened the chasm between the “haves” and the “have-nots” in the United States in new ways. People who can work from home, often in higher-income jobs, are comfortable.

But over 20 million Americans rely on unemployment benefits, and hunger and poverty are rising.

The expanded rift has been accompanied by an outpouring of donations to local food banks, crowdfunding campaigns and other aid to financially devastated Americans.

Amazon shareholder Mackenzie Scott’s $4 billion in charitable contributions, announced earlier this month, may be the biggest. But plenty of Americans are also chipping in, donating $10 or $20, some for the first time ever.

Many non-profits have suffered this year as the pandemic shuttered galas and fundraisers. But donations to some small and mid-sized charitable organizations were up 7.6% in the first nine months of 2020 over 2019, according to a recent analysis by the Association of Fundraising Professionals, which tracks nearly 2,500 groups. The number of donors is up by 11.7%.

The trend seems to have continued in December, typically the most active time for charitable giving in the United States, early data show. Charities received $2.47 billion in donations on Dec. 1, the Tuesday after Thanksgiving known as GivingTuesday, up 25% from 2019.

“People are giving like we’ve never seen before,” said Woodrow Rosenbaum, chief data officer for GivingTuesday.

Much of that is coming in small dollar amounts, suggesting that people across the income spectrum are stepping up their contributions, Rosenbaum said.

About 70% of the donations made to campaigns on GoFundMe were under $50 this year, up from 40% in 2019, according to a spokesperson for the fundraising website.

“What we have now is much more collective action,” said Rosenbaum.

America’s Food Fund, started this year, raised over $44 million on GoFundMe, the largest campaign ever on the fundraising website. Long-time programs like the United States Post Office’s Operation Santa, which matches donors with needy families who send letters to a special North Pole address, report unprecedented support.

Jonathan Cummings, executive director for Revive South Jersey, a ministry started in 2012 to tutor English, mentor and provide housing help in local communities, says a “groundswell” of volunteers signed up to deliver food every two weeks after the organization realized that many of the families it supports were struggling to afford groceries.

Giving Tuesday donations tracked by Share Omaha, a Nebraska organization that supports local nonprofits, nearly doubled this year from 2019, to over $3 million, with a third coming from first-time donors. When the group asked for volunteers earlier in the year for packing meals for the homeless and other tasks, it got 700 applications, up from the 200 monthly average.

“Even if people are out of work or furloughed, they want to give back to the community,” said Marjorie Maas, executive director for the organization.

Janette McCabe was one of the hundreds of people waiting in cars before sunrise on the Monday before Christmas in a parking lot in Warren, Michigan, for a Forgotten Harvest food bank distribution.

McCabe and her husband lost their jobs recently and have been relying on food stamps. She has been coming to the food bank distribution for about a month and a half.

“The volunteers are fantastic,” McCabe said. “I don’t know what we would do if we didn’t have them.”

(Reporting by Jonnelle Marte; Additional reporting by Emily Elconin; Editing by Heather Timmons and Dan Grebler)

Stranded truckers fume as they wait to leave UK after COVID blockade

By Peter Nicholls and Gerry Mey

DOVER, England (Reuters) – Furious truck drivers stranded at the English port of Dover scuffled with police as Britain sought to get cross-Channel traffic moving after a partial blockade by France to contain a highly infectious coronavirus variant.

Paris and London agreed late on Tuesday that drivers carrying a negative test result could board ferries for Calais from Wednesday after much of the world shut its borders to Britain to contain the new mutated variant.

The British government has drafted in the military to help but there was confusion amongst drivers about how to get tests, and warnings it would take time to clear the backlog of trucks, hammering Britain’s most important trade route for food just days before it leaves the European Union’s orbit.

“Testing has begun as we look to get traffic moving again between the UK and France,” British transport minister Grant Shapps said on Twitter. “However, French border police only acting on agreement from this morning and severe delays continue.”

Huge queues of trucks have been stacked on a motorway towards the Eurotunnel Channel Tunnel and on roads to Dover in the southeast county of Kent, while others have been parked up at the former nearby airport at Manston.

With no sign of traffic to the European mainland resuming and confusion over how to get a coronavirus test, tempers were beginning to flare among drivers, many from Eastern Europe who do not speak English and are angry that they will not be able to get home to their families before Christmas.

Police said there had been disturbances in Dover and Manston “involving individuals hoping to cross the Channel” and one arrest had been made.

“This is not how it should work. We have no information, the people need to be fetching information,” Mekki Coskun from Dortmund in Germany, told Reuters.

Poland’s Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said he had been in touch with Britain’s Boris Johnson and French President Emmanuel Macron about the jam.

“This can be done differently. This whole process could’ve been better organized,” he said.

The Road Haulage Association, which estimated there were up to 10,000 trucks being held up in Kent, said it was chaotic.

“The border is still closed, the testing regime isn’t happening yet, you’ve got truckers very angry and we’re starting to see a breakdown in law and order in a small way among very frustrated guys who want to get back by Christmas,” Rod McKenzie, managing director of policy for the RHA, said.

Normally between 7,500-8,500 trucks travel via the port every day but volumes have reached more than 10,000 recently.

Getlink, the operator of the Channel Tunnel, said just 45 trucks had reached France between midnight and 1100 GMT.

FURTHER BREXIT DISRUPTION

Some of the extra traffic was a result of Christmas demand, but many were in the country to deliver goods to companies who are stockpiling parts before Britain finally leaves the EU on Dec. 31, a move that is expected to cause further disruption in January when a full customs border comes into force.

The British Retail Consortium, an industry lobby group, warned that until the backlog of trucks was cleared and supply chains returned to normal, there could be issues with the availability of some fresh goods.

Logistics firms have also said that many European drivers had already refused to come to Britain in the new year when they would have to carry customs paperwork, and the need to secure a coronavirus test will further compound the situation, pushing up freight prices.

Drivers will first take a rapid lateral flow test. Anyone who records a positive result will take a more comprehensive PCR test, which takes longer to secure a result, and anyone testing positive again will be given a hotel room to isolate.

Many of the mostly European drivers, many stranded with their trucks and without access to hot food or bathroom facilities, believe they are pawns in a political standoff between Britain and the EU as trade talks reach a climax.

“We don’t have food to eat, we don’t have drink, we don’t have anything, nobody … cares about us,” said Stella Vradzheva a driver from Sterlcha in Bulgaria.

(Additional reporting by James Davey, Joanna Plucinska, and Yiming Woo; Writing by Kate Holton and Michael Holden; Editing by Guy Faulconbridge and Alison Williams)

Britain tells shoppers food is plentiful but supermarkets fret about next week

By James Davey

LONDON (Reuters) – Britain said there was plenty of food in the shops on Tuesday but industry groups repeated warnings of shortages of some fresh produce from next week unless freight routes to mainland Europe are swiftly restored.

Interior minister Priti Patel said Britons should not be concerned despite Tesco and Sainsbury’s, Britain’s two biggest supermarket groups, raising the alarm on Monday that gaps could start to appear on fruit and vegetable shelves within days.

Freight from France is being disrupted as part of a wider suspension of travel links with Britain to try to curb a new faster-spreading strain of COVID-19.

“I don’t think anybody should be worried – there is plenty of food in our shops,” Patel told LBC radio.

British supermarkets are facing record Christmas demand due to COVID-19 restrictions on the hospitality industry and on travel and there are fears of panic buying.

“UK shoppers need have no concerns about food supplies over Christmas, but impacts on local on-shelf availability of certain fresh foods look likely from next week unless we can swiftly restore this link,” said Ian Wright, CEO of the Food and Drink Federation, which represents over 300 food and drink businesses.

The British Retail Consortium (BRC), which represents more than 170 major retailers including the big supermarkets, is also concerned about supplies shortly after Christmas, highlighting possible shortages of salad, vegetables and fruit, including raspberries and strawberries.

“The borders really need to be running pretty much freely from tomorrow to assure us that there won’t be any disruption,” Andrew Opie, the BRC’s director of food and sustainability, told BBC radio.

He noted that 90% of the lettuces consumed by Britons and about 70% of soft fruit comes through the Channel ports at this time of year.

TESTING

The BBC cited France’s Europe Minister Clément Beaune as saying that Britain and France would announce a deal to restart freight by Wednesday. One option is to roll out mass testing for truck drivers.

“Whatever is agreed, we need to be careful it doesn’t add too much friction to the supply chain which in itself causes disruption by causing delays to the drivers whilst they’re being tested,” said Opie.

Though large queues again snaked around supermarkets across Britain on Tuesday and some shelves were stripped bare, food retailers said they had not seen any major changes in customer buying behavior.

Opie said supermarkets had expected and planned for Christmas queues.

“You need to remember these are the busiest days for shopping…and remember all the stores are still operating all of their COVID protocols, which means you can’t get as many people into a supermarket as you would do normally,” Opie said.

“We’re not seeing the sort of excessive buying in any kind of volumes that we saw around that period in sort of mid-March,” he added.

(Reporting by James Davey; Editing by Guy Faulconbridge, Alexander Smith and Louise Heavens)