LONDON — Britain was all but cut off from the rest of Europe on Monday, with flights and trains banned by some 40 countries and freight deliveries halted at French ports, as its neighbors tried desperately to stop a fast-spreading variant of the coronavirus from leaping across the English Channel.
The sudden disruption left Britain isolated and unnerved, its people stranded at airports or quarantined at home. It aroused fears of panic buying in British supermarkets, as a nation already rattled by a mysterious new strain of the virus now had to worry about running out of fresh food in the days before Christmas.
It all added up to a chilling preview, a mere 10 days before the deadline to negotiate a post-Brexit trade agreement between Britain and the European Union, of what a chaotic rupture between the two sides might actually look like.
For Prime Minister Boris Johnson, whose handling of the pandemic has been hampered by a reluctance to take tough measures followed by abrupt reversals in the face of alarming new evidence, the cascading events posed perhaps the gravest challenge yet to his ardently pro-Brexit government.
As he huddled in emergency meetings, Mr. Johnson was simultaneously dealing with an escalating public health crisis, deepening economic upheaval and trade talks in Brussels that could cement the break between Britain and its neighbors.
Fears of a dangerous disruption to the food supply eased somewhat over the course of the day, as French officials said they were working to devise health protocols that would allow cross-channel freight shipments to resume.
Mr. Johnson said that he had telephoned President Emmanuel Macron and that the French leader told him “he was keen to sort it out in the next few hours.” Speaking at a news conference, Mr. Johnson assured Britons, “Everyone can continue to shop normally.”
Still, the multiplying problems hammered the stock market and depressed the pound. And there was an unnerving sense that Britain was entering a new, more volatile phase of the pandemic at the very moment that its relationship with its largest trading partner was being thrust into uncharted territory.
Political commentators grasped for a precedent for the chaos, with some harkening back to the turbulent events of 1978 and 1979, when nationwide strikes, compounded by harsh winter weather, led to the collapse of the Labour government and the political ascension of Margaret Thatcher.
“The government has got to do something to get things under control,” said Jonathan Powell, who served as chief of staff to former Prime Minister Tony Blair when a series of strikes in 2000 caused a politically damaging fuel crisis. “The one thing the public hates is when the government loses control.”
The trigger for the current upheaval was Mr. Johnson’s announcement Saturday that he was imposing a strict lockdown on London and the southeast of England, after new data indicated that a viral mutation had turbocharged infection rates in those areas.
Scientists who briefed the press Monday estimate the variant is 50 percent to 70 percent more transmissible than the original virus. (Mr. Johnson had earlier said up to 70 percent.) They…
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