Several European Union nations have banned flights from the UK and others are considering similar action in a bid to block a new strain of coronavirus sweeping across southern England from establishing a strong foothold on the continent.
France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium, Austria, Ireland and Bulgaria all announced restrictions on UK travel, hours after British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced that Christmas shopping and gatherings in southern England must be cancelled because of rapidly spreading infections blamed on the new coronavirus variant.
Mr Johnson immediately put those regions into a strict new Tier 4 restriction level, upending Christmas plans for millions.
France banned all travel from the UK for 48 hours from midnight, the prime minister’s office announced.
The French statement said the short two-day period would buy authorities time to find a “common doctrine” on how to deal with the threat. It specified that “flows of people or transport to the UK are not affected”.
The German government said it was banning flights coming from Britain in reaction to the new coronavirus strain. The transportation ministry said all UK flights, with the exception of cargo flights, were no longer allowed to land in Germany starting at midnight.
It did not immediately say how long the flight ban would last, but news agency dpa reported it would be in place until at least December 31.
Germany, which holds the rotating EU presidency, also called a special crisis meeting on Monday to co-ordinate the response to the virus news among the bloc’s 27 member states.
The Netherlands banned flights from the UK for at least the rest of the year, while Belgium issued a flight ban for 24 hours starting at midnight and also halted train links to Britain, including the Eurostar.
Austria and Italy said they would halt flights from the UK but did not say exactly when that would take place.
Italy’s health minister, Roberto Speranza, said an order signed on Sunday blocked flights from Britain and prohibited entry into Italy by anyone who has been in the UK in the last 14 days. The order bans plane travel until January 6.
The Czech Republic imposed stricter quarantine measures from people arriving from Britain.
High-speed train operator Eurostar cancelled its trains between London, Brussels and Amsterdam beginning on Monday, but kept trains operating on the London-to-Paris route.
Mr Johnson said on Saturday that a fast-moving new variant of the virus that is 70% more transmissible than existing strains appeared to be driving the rapid spread of new infections in London and southern England in recent weeks.
But he stressed “there’s no evidence to suggest it is more lethal or causes more severe illness”, or that vaccines will be less effective against it.
Belgian prime minister Alexander De Croo said on Sunday that he was issuing the flight ban for 24 hours starting at midnight “out of precaution”.
“There are a great many questions about this new mutation,” he said, adding that he hoped to have more clarity by Tuesday.
Beyond Europe, Israel also said it was banning flights from Britain, Denmark and South Africa because these were the countries where the mutation was found.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) tweeted late on Saturday that it was “in close contact with UK officials on the new #COVID19 virus variant” and promised to update governments and the public as more was learned.
The new strain was identified in southeastern England in September and has been spreading in the area ever since, a WHO official told the BBC on Sunday.
“What we understand is that it does have increased transmissibility, in terms of its ability to spread,” Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO’s technical lead on Covid-19 said.
Weâre in close contact with UK 🇬🇧 officials on the new #COVID19 virus variant. Theyâll continue to share info & results of their analysis & ongoing studies. Weâll update Member States & public as we learn more about the characteristics of this virus variant & any implications.— World Health Organization (WHO) (@WHO) December 19, 2020
Studies are under way to better understand how fast it spreads and and whether “it’s related to the variant itself, or a combination of factors with behaviour,” she added.
She said the strain had also been identified in Denmark, the Netherlands and Australia, where there was one case that did not spread further.
“The longer this virus spreads, the more opportunities it has to change,” she said. “So we really need to do everything we can right now to prevent spread.”
Viruses mutate regularly, and scientists have found thousands of different mutations among samples of the virus causing Covid-19. Many of these changes have no effect on how easily the virus spreads or how severe symptoms are.
British health authorities said that while the variant has been circulating since September, it was not until the last week that officials felt they had enough evidence to declare that it had higher transmissibility than other circulating coronaviruses.
Officials are not certain whether it originated in the UK but by December, figures show it was causing over 60% of infections in London.
US president-elect Joe Biden’s nominee for US surgeon general said on Sunday that the emergence of the new strain did not change the public health guidance on precautions for reducing the spread of the virus, such as wearing masks, social distancing and washing hands.
Europe has been hit hard this autumn by soaring new infections and deaths due to a resurgence of the virus, and many nations have reimposed a series of restrictions to rein in their outbreaks.