LONDON — A highly contagious new variant of the coronavirus is causing countries in Europe and elsewhere to block travel from Britain.
The U.K. last week warned of a new coronavirus variant that is thought 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 British government to backtrack on plans to let families mix over Christmas, locking down London and other areas in southern England where infections by the Covid mutation are heavily concentrated.
Freight vehicles line up prior to boarding a train to France via the Channel Tunnel, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Folkestone, Britain, December 20, 2020.
Peter Nicholls | Reuters
Over the weekend, several countries announced plans to shut their borders to Britain. In Europe, France, Germany, Italy, Ireland and the Netherlands have all barred flights from the U.K., while Austria and Sweden are reportedly preparing to do the same.
France banned people and freight coming from the U.K., whether by road, air, sea or rail, for 48 hours from Sunday night. The port of Dover was also closed to all vehicle traffic leaving the U.K., according to a statement from authorities. The move is expected to cause miles of lorry back-ups.
On Monday, U.K. Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said it was “slightly surprising” that France had closed its border to freight.
The German government, meanwhile, suspended all flights from the U.K. from midnight on Sunday. German Health Minister Jens Spahn said the U.K. virus mutation had not yet been identified in the country.
The information board at the capital’s airport shows flights from London-Gatwick and Manchester as “cancelled”. Following the emergence of a new variant of the coronavirus, numerous countries are suspending flights from the UK for the time being – including Germany.
Paul Zinken | picture alliance | Getty Images
Belgium’s ban prevents flights and trains — including the popular Eurostar high-speed rail service — arriving from the U.K. Meanwhile, Italy has blocked all flights from the country through to Jan. 6, with the Italian health ministry saying its first case of the new virus variant had been reported in Rome. The Netherlands has banned flights from Britain until Jan. 1.
Ireland, which usually has significant passenger traffic with the U.K. at this time of year, announced flights arriving from England, Wales and Scotland would be banned for at least 48 hours from midnight.
The U.K. government said 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 Covid variant at 10 a.m. London time.
The situation could further complicate Brexit talks. Britain and the European Union remain in deadlock over post-Brexit trade relations as a Dec. 31 deadline looms, with disputes over issues such as fisheries plaguing negotiations. Sterling sank sharply versus the dollar, falling 2.4% to around $1.32.
Other countries, including India, Canada and Israel, have also imposed new measures barring flights from the U.K.
India will suspend all flights from the U.K. from Wednesday until the end of the year, the country’s aviation ministry said in a tweet Monday.
European stocks sold off sharply Monday amid jitters over the new Covid variant. The pan-European Stoxx 600 index fell 3.2%, with travel shares plunging as much as 4.6%.
What is the new coronavirus variant?
Professor Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical officer, said Saturday that the U.K. had identified a new Covid variant that “can spread more quickly” than prior strains.
It’s not clear whether the new strain transmits more easily, makes people sicker or changes the way their immune system responds to the virus if they were already infected or vaccinated. So far, Whitty, said, studies suggest the new strain is substantially more transmissible but there’s no evidence to suggest it causes a higher death rate.
People walk past the closed entrance of the Eurostar terminal at Brussels South railway station after Britain’s European neighbors began closing their doors to travelers from the United Kingdom amid alarm about a rapidly spreading strain of coronavirus, in Brussels, Belgium December 21, 2020.
Yves Herman | Reuters
Whitty added there was a “working assumption” that vaccines should still work against the mutant strain.
British Health Secretary Matt Hancock said Sunday that the new variant was “out of control” and suggested it could be months before strict coronavirus restrictions would be allowed to end.
“The new variant is out of control and we need to bring it under control,” Hancock told the BBC’s Andrew Marr program on Sunday.
“Essentially we’ve got to get that vaccine rolled out to keep people safe,” Hancock said in a separate interview with Sky News.
“I think that, given how much faster this new variant spreads, it is going to be very difficult to keep it under control until we have the vaccine rolled out.”
The U.K. was the first country to start rolling out a leading Covid vaccine — namely, the one developed by Pfizer and BioNTech. The vaccines are only being administered to the most vulnerable people in the U.K. currently, and it’s not clear when they will become more widely available.