LONDON – A highly contagious new variant of the coronavirus is causing countries in Europe and elsewhere to block travel from the UK.
The UK last week warned of a new variant of the coronavirus that is believed to be up to 70% more transmissible than the original strain of the disease. According to the World Health Organization, the new variant has so far been identified in Denmark, the Netherlands and Australia.
News of the strain forced the UK government to withdraw its plans to mix families over Christmas and lock down London and other areas of southern England where infections from the Covid mutation are highly concentrated.
Over the weekend, several countries announced plans to close their borders with the UK. In Europe, France, Germany, Italy, Ireland and the Netherlands have suspended flights from the UK, while Austria and Sweden are reportedly preparing to do so.
France banned people and goods from Britain, whether by road, air, sea or rail, for 48 hours starting Sunday evening. The port of Dover has also been closed to all vehicle traffic leaving the UK, according to a statement by authorities. The move is expected to cause miles of truck backups.
On Monday, UK Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said it was “a bit surprising” that France had closed its border to freight.
The federal government has now suspended all flights from Great Britain from midnight on Sunday. Federal Health Minister Jens Spahn said the British virus mutation had not yet been identified in the country.
The Belgian ban prevents flights and trains – including the popular Eurostar high-speed train service – from arriving from the UK. Meanwhile, Italy has blocked all flights from the country until January 6th. The Italian Ministry of Health announces the first case of the new virus variant had been reported in Rome. The Netherlands banned flights from the UK until January 1st.
Ireland, which normally has significant passenger traffic with the UK at this time of year, announced that flights from England, Wales and Scotland will be banned for at least 48 hours from midnight onwards.
The British government has announced that it will hold a crisis meeting on Monday to discuss the international travel situation. The European Council is expected to hold talks on a coordinated EU response to the new variant of Covid at 10 a.m., London time.
The situation could make the Brexit talks even more difficult. The UK and the European Union remain stalled on post-Brexit trade relations as the December 31 deadline expires and disputes over issues such as fisheries plague negotiations. The pound sterling fell sharply against the dollar, falling 2.4% to around $ 1.32.
Other countries, including India, Canada and Israel, have also introduced new measures banning flights from the UK
India will suspend all flights from the UK from Wednesday through the end of the year, the country’s Aviation Department said in a tweet on Monday.
European stocks sold heavily on Monday amid the unrest over the new Covid variant. The pan-European Stoxx 600 index fell 3.2%, with the proportion of travel even falling 4.6%.
What is the new coronavirus variant?
Professor Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical officer, said Saturday that the UK had identified a new variant of Covid that “can spread faster” than previous strains.
It’s not clear if the new strain will transmit more easily, make people sick, or change the way their immune systems react to the virus if they were already infected or vaccinated. So far, Whitty said, studies suggest the new strain is significantly more transmissible, but there’s no evidence that it causes a higher death rate.
Whitty added there was a “working assumption” that vaccines should still work against the mutant strain.
UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock said Sunday that the new variant was “out of control” and suggested it could be months before strict coronavirus restrictions were lifted.
“The new variant is out of control and we have to get it under control,” Hancock told BBC program Andrew Marr on Sunday.
“Essentially, we need to introduce this vaccine to keep people safe,” Hancock said in a separate interview with Sky News.
“I think given how much faster this new variant is spreading, it will be very difficult to keep it under control until we get the vaccine in place.”
The UK was the first country to begin adopting a leading Covid vaccine – namely that developed by Pfizer and BioNTech. The vaccines are currently only being given to the UK’s most vulnerable people and it is not clear when they will be more widely available.