More EU nations halting U.K. flights over fears of new coronavirus variant

One by one, several European Union nations banned flights from the U.K. on Sunday 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.

Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Austria and Italy all announced restrictions on U.K. travel.

A government spokesperson in Germany said the country is working on a regulation to restrict travel between Germany and Britain to protect the country from the new coronavirus variant. The government said it was in contact with its European partners about the travel restrictions, too. It wasn’t immediately clear when or for how long the restrictions would be.

Germany said it will also restrict travel to and from South Africa.

The Netherlands banned flights from the U.K. 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 U.K., but did not say exactly when that would take place.

Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio said on Twitter that the government was preparing the ban “to protect Italians” from the new coronavirus variant. About two dozen flights were scheduled to arrive in Italy from the U.K. 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. An EU official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the talks were still ongoing, said Sunday afternoon that the European Commission was in touch with member states on the rapidly developing situation.

A health-care worker co-ordinates people waiting in line at a test centre for antigen rapid tests for COVID-19 during free antigen testing at Bulovka Hospital in Prague on Dec. 16. The voluntary testing is being offered to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19 during the holiday season. (Michal Cizek/FP via Getty Images)

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

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

‘No evidence’ new strain is more lethal

Johnson immediately put those regions into a new Tier 4 level of restrictions, saying that a fast-moving new variant of the virus could be driving the rapid spread of new infections in London and southern England.

“There’s no evidence to suggest it is more lethal or causes more severe illness,” the British prime minister stressed, or that vaccines will be less effective against it.

WATCH | British virologist explains why there is no need to worry about new coronavirus variant:

British virologist Julian Tang says the new strain of coronavirus detected in Britain will likely still be vulnerable to the vaccines developed to combat COVID-19. 0:49

Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo said Sunday said 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 he hoped to have more clarity by Tuesday.

WHO in ‘close contact’ with U.K. officials

The World Health Organization tweeted late Saturday, “We’re in close contact with U.K. officials on the new #COVID19 virus variant.” It promised to update governments and the public as more is learned about this variant.

The new strain of coronavirus was identified in southeastern England in September and has been circulating in the area 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 underway to better understand how fast it spreads and whether “it’s related to the variant itself, or a combination of factors with behaviour,” she said.

Van Kerkhove said the strain had also been identified in Denmark, the Netherlands and Australia, where there was one case that did not spread further.

Limiting spread would cut chances of mutation

“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.”

Viruses mutate regularly, and scientists have found thousands of different mutations among samples of the virus causing COVID-19. But many of these changes have no effect on how easily the virus spreads or how severe symptoms are.

Europe has been walloped this fall 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.

Britain has seen more than 67,000 deaths in the pandemic, the second-highest confirmed toll in Europe after Italy.

Johnson on Saturday closed all non-essential shops, hairdressers, gyms and pools and told Britons to reorganize their holiday plans. Mixing of households is not allowed indoors in Tier 4 areas, including London, and only essential travel is permitted into and out of such areas.

In the rest of England, people will be allowed to meet in Christmas bubbles for just one day instead of the five that were planned.

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