Several EU states successively banned flights from the UK on Sunday, and others are considering similar measures to prevent a new strain of coronavirus spread across southern England from gaining a foothold on the continent.
Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Austria and Italy all announced restrictions on travel to the UK hours after UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced that Christmas shopping and gatherings in southern England would have to be canceled due to fast-spreading infections that point to the new coronavirus Variant are due.
Johnson immediately put these regions into strict new Tier 4 restrictions and turned Christmas plans for millions on their heads.
The federal government has announced that it will ban flights from the UK in response to the new strain of coronavirus. The Ministry of Transport announced that all British flights, with the exception of cargo flights, will no longer be allowed to land in Germany from midnight Sunday. It was not immediately said how long the flight ban would last.
The Netherlands banned flights from the UK for at least the rest of the year, while Belgium banned flights for 24 hours from midnight and also stopped train connections to the UK, including the Eurostars. Austria and Italy said they would suspend flights from the UK but didn’t say exactly when this would take place.
Italian Health Minister Roberto Speranza said an order signed on Sunday is blocking flights from the UK and banning entry into Italy for anyone who has been in the UK in the past 14 days. The regulation prohibits air travel until January 6th.
The Czech Republic imposed stricter quarantine measures on people from the UK. An EU official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the talks were ongoing, said Sunday afternoon that the European Commission was in contact with member states about the rapidly evolving situation.
The high-speed train operator Eurostar canceled its trains between London, Brussels and Amsterdam from Monday, but kept trains running on the route from London to Paris.
Johnson said Saturday that a fast-moving new variant of the virus that is 70% more transmissible than existing strains appears to be fueling the rapid spread of new infections in London and southern England. But he stressed that “there is no evidence that it is more deadly or causes more serious illness” or that vaccines are less effective against it.
Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo said on Sunday that he had issued the flight ban for 24 hours from midnight “as a precautionary measure”.
“There are a lot of questions about this new mutation,” he said, hoping to have more clarity by Tuesday.
The World Health Organization tweeted late Saturday that it was “in close contact with British officials about the new # Covid19 virus variant” and promised to update governments and the public as more is learned.
The new strain was identified in south-east England in September and has since spread throughout the region, a WHO official told the BBC on Sunday.
“We understand that portability is increased in terms of ability to spread,” said Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO technical director for Covid-19.
Studies are ongoing to better understand how quickly it is spreading and whether “it is related to the variant itself or a combination of factors to behavior,” 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 any further.
“The longer this virus spreads, the more opportunities it has to change,” she said. “So we really have to do everything we can to prevent it from spreading, and minimizing that spread will make it less likely to change.”
Viruses mutate regularly, and scientists have found thousands of different mutations in samples of the virus that cause Covid-19. Many of these changes don’t affect how easily the virus spreads or how severe the symptoms are.
Public Health England’s Susan Hopkins said while the variant has been around since September, it was only last week that officials felt they had enough evidence to explain that it had higher transmittability than other circulating coronaviruses.
U.S. President-elect Joe Biden’s candidate for U.S. Surgeon General said Sunday that the emergence of the new tribe would set public health guidelines on precautions to reduce the spread of the virus, such as wearing masks, social distancing and hand washing does not change.
“While it appears to be more easily transmissible, we still have no evidence that this is a more deadly virus for a person who acquires it,” Vivek Murthy said on NBC’s Meet the Press. “There is no reason to believe that the vaccines developed will not be effective against this virus either.”
Europe was hit by the surge in new infections and deaths from recurrence of the virus this fall, and many nations have put a number of restrictions in place to rule on their outbreaks.
There were over 67,000 deaths in the UK from the pandemic, the second highest confirmed number in Europe after Italy. Europe as a whole has seen nearly 499,000 virus deaths, according to a record by Johns Hopkins University, which experts believe is negligible due to limited testing and a lack of cases.
The European Medicines Agency meets on Monday to approve the first Covid-19 vaccine for the 27 nations of the European Union and bring vaccinations closer to millions of EU citizens. The vaccine from the German pharmaceutical company BioNTech and the American drug manufacturer Pfizer is already used in the USA, Great Britain, Canada and other countries.
The EMA has postponed its rating of the Pfizer BioNTech vaccine by a week after strong pressure from EU governments, especially Germany. Once approved by the EMA, it could start vaccinating citizens as soon as next Sunday.
In an urgent address to the nation on Saturday, Johnson ordered that all non-essential stores, hairdressers and gyms in London and much of southern England be closed and urged the British to reorganize their vacation plans. Mixing of households is no longer permitted inside the region and only essential travel is permitted. In the rest of England, people are only allowed to meet in Christmas bubbles for one day instead of the five planned.
After speaking, videos surfaced online showing crowds rushing to London’s train stations and apparently storming to locations in the UK with less stringent coronavirus restrictions before the new rules went into effect. Health Secretary Matt Hancock called these scenes “completely irresponsible”.
While Hancock insisted officials “acted very quickly and decisively”, critics said the UK conservative government should have acted against rising infections and hospitalizations much sooner.
“The alarm bells have been ringing for weeks, but the prime minister has decided to ignore them,” said Keir Starmer, leader of the opposition Labor Party. “It is gross negligence on the part of a prime minister caught behind the curve again.”