Several European nations halt UK flights over new COVID strain

Countries place new restrictions on travel to and from the UK due to concern over a new strain of coronavirus spreading rapidly.

A passenger walks at Rome airport after Italy announced all flights to and from the UK will be suspended [Remo Casilli/Reuters]

Several European countries have banned flights to and from the United Kingdom and others were considering such action, all in hopes of blocking a new strain of coronavirus sweeping across southern England from establishing a strong foothold on the continent.

The Netherlands was the first on Sunday to announce an immediate ban on flights, with similar advisories quickly following from Belgium, Austria and Italy.

Germany said it is banning flights coming from Britain in reaction to the new coronavirus strain. Its transportation ministry said all UK flights with the exception of cargo flights were no longer allowed to land in Germany starting at midnight on Sunday.

It didn’t immediately say how long the flight ban would last, but DPA news agency reported it would be in place at least until December 31.

Germany, which holds the rotating European Union presidency, also called a special crisis meeting on Monday to coordinate 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.

Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio on Twitter said the government was preparing the ban “to protect Italians” from the new coronavirus variant. About two dozen flights were scheduled to arrive in Italy on Sunday, most in the northern region of Lombardy but also to Venice and Rome.

The Czech Republic imposed stricter quarantine measures from people arriving from Britain.

Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo on Sunday said he was issuing the flight ban for 24 hours starting at midnight “out of precaution”.

An EU official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the talks were still ongoing, said on Sunday afternoon the European Commission was in touch with member states on the rapidly developing situation.

Just days before Christmas, high-speed train operator Eurostar cancelled its trains between London, Brussels and Amsterdam beginning Monday, but kept trains operating on the London-to-Paris route.

Tough measures in UK

The EU governments said they were taking action in response to tougher measures imposed on Saturday by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on London and its surrounding areas.

Johnson immediately put those regions into a new Tier 4 restriction level, upending Christmas plans for millions.

He said a fast-moving new variant of the virus that is 70 percent more transmissible than existing strains appeared to be driving the rapid spread of new infections in London and southern England.

But he added “there’s no evidence to suggest it is more lethal or causes more severe illness,” or that vaccines will be less effective against it.

The World Health Organization (WHO) tweeted late on Saturday it was “in close contact with UK officials on the new #COVID19 virus variant” and promised to update governments and the public as more is learned.

The new strain was identified in southeastern England in September and has been circulating 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,” said Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO’s technical lead on COVID-19.

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 behavior,” she added.

She said the strain had also been identified in Denmark, the Netherlands and Australia, where there was one case that didn’t 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, and minimizing that spread will reduce the chances of it changing.”

Source: News Agencies