Argentina, Chile, Colombia and Canada have joined a growing list of nations in barring travel to and from the United Kingdom as part of a bid to block a new strain of coronavirus that is sweeping across southeastern England.
Sunday’s travel bans came hours after British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced that Christmas shopping and gatherings in London and many of its surrounding areas had to be cancelled because of rapidly spreading infections blamed on the new coronavirus variant.
Johnson also placed those regions under strict new Tier 4 restrictions, upending Christmas plans for millions of people, and prompting France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium, Austria, Ireland and Bulgaria to impose curbs on UK travel.
Argentina’s Interior Ministry said in its statement that the last flight from the UK before the suspension starts is scheduled to arrive in Buenos Aires on Monday morning.
Passengers and crew arriving on that flight will have to go into a seven-day quarantine, it said.
Chile’s government said non-resident foreigners who had been in the UK over the last 14 days would be banned from entering the country. The measure will go into effect at midnight on Tuesday and last two weeks, the Chilean statement said. Colombia’s President Ivan Duque also suspended all flights to the UK and said anyone who arrives in the country from Monday “who has been in the United Kingdom will enter a 14-day isolation in our country”.
Canada announced its own ban on Sunday night. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in a statement that for 72 hours starting at midnight on Sunday, “all flights from the UK will be prohibited from entering Canada”.
He added that travellers who arrived on Sunday would be subject to secondary screening and other health measures. A follow-up statement from the government said cargo flights were not included in the ban.
‘New variant is out of control’
The British government said Johnson would preside at a meeting of the government’s crisis committee, COBRA, on Monday in the wake of the other nations’ measures. They come at a time of huge economic uncertainty for the UK, less than two weeks before it finally leaves the European Union on December 31, with talks on a post-Brexit trade relationship still deadlocked.
Johnson said on Saturday that 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 England’s southeast in recent weeks. But he stressed “there’s no evidence to suggest it is more lethal or causes more severe illness,” or that vaccines would be less effective against it.
On Sunday, British Health Secretary Matt Hancock added to the alarm when he said “the new variant is out of control”. The UK recorded 35,928 further confirmed cases, approximately double the number from a week ago.
Germany, which banned all flights coming from the UK starting at midnight on Sunday, 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 until the rest of the year, while France banned all travel from the UK for 48 hours from midnight on Sunday, including trucks carrying freight through the tunnel under the English Channel or from the port of Dover on England’s south coast.
French officials said the pause would buy time to find a “common doctrine” on how to deal with the threat but it threw the busy cross-channel route used by thousands of trucks a day into chaos.
The Port of Dover tweeted on Sunday night that its ferry terminal was “closed to all accompanied traffic leaving the UK until further notice due to border restrictions in France”.
Eurostar passenger trains from London to Paris, Brussels and Amsterdam were also halted.
Ireland and Belgium issued flight bans for 48 hours and 24 hours, respectively. Italy said it would block flights from the UK until January 6 and an order signed on Sunday prohibits entry into Italy by anyone who has been in the UK in the last 14 days.
The Czech Republic imposed stricter quarantine measures from people arriving from the UK.
Beyond Europe, Israel also said it was banning flights from Britain, Denmark and South Africa because those were countries where the mutation had been found.
‘Unusual number of variants’
The World Health Organization (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 is 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 media network 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 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.
“The rate of mutation so far has not been worrisome,” said Dr Priya Sampathkumar, an associate professor of medicine at the Mayo Clinic in the United States. “Typically, it takes much longer than a few months for mutations to have a significant impact on virus behaviour. It’s usually years of mutation that changes how viruses behave. But the fact that this particular strain has become the predominant strain in the UK is a little bit worrying.”
Speaking from Rochester, Minnesota, Sampathkumar told Al Jazeera lockdowns and travel restrictions were a “good idea until we know more about the new strain”.
“Vaccination has just started in the UK, and if we start seeing a lot of cases in people who’ve been vaccinated then perhaps this mutation has made the vaccine less effective,” she added. “But until we have enough people vaccinated, we are not going to know for sure.”
British health authorities said that while the variant had 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.
Patrick Vallance, the British government’s chief scientific adviser, said officials were concerned about the new variant because it contained 23 different changes, “an unusually large number of variants” affecting how the virus binds to and enters cells in the body.
Officials were not certain whether it originated in the UK, Vallance added. But by December, he said it was behind more than 60 percent 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 does not change the public health guidance on precautions for reducing the spread of the virus, such as wearing masks, social distancing and washing hands.
“While it seems to be more easily transmissible, we do not have evidence yet that this is a more deadly virus to an individual who acquires it,” Dr Vivek Murthy said on tv network NBC’s Meet the Press.
“There’s no reason to believe that the vaccines that have been developed will not be effective against this virus, as well.”