Belgium and the Netherlands suspended flights from theUKon Sunday and several other countries were weighing similar measures to stop a new, fast-spreading virus strain that UKPM Boris Johnsonsays is up to 70% “more transmissible” and other UKauthoritiesdescribe as “out of control”.
It is not known, however, if the new strain is more dangerous and if the recently released vaccines are effective against it. The new strain has also been detected in the Netherlands, Denmark, Australia and South Africa.
The Union health ministry has called an urgent meeting of its joint monitoring group on Monday to discuss the new strain. the emergence of a mutated variant of the coronavirus in the UK, which has led to a surge in the infection rate there.
European countries began closing their borders to travellers from the United Kingdom as British health secretary Matt Hancock said on Sunday that the government has imposed a strict Christmas lockdown in London and southeast England because the new strain of the coronavirus was “out of control”.
Hancock warned that the strict measures that affect almost a third of England’s population could stay in place until the virus vaccine is fully rolled out. “We acted very quickly and decisively,” Hancock told Sky News, justifying the “stay at home” order, ban on family gatherings over Christmas and closure of non-essential shops. “Unfortunately the new strain was out of control. We have got to get it under control.”
The new restrictions in England, which came into effect at midnight on Saturday and effectively quarantined the capital and other areas from the rest of the country, are the harshest measures to be taken since the country’s first lockdown in March. Train stations in London on Saturday night filled with crowds of people scrambling to leave the city. Transport officials said that they would increase the number of police officers monitoring hubs like railway stations to ensure only essential journeys were being taken.
Worried by the potential influx of travellers from Britain, the Netherlands said it would suspend flights from Britain from Sunday until January 1. The German government said that it’s banning all flights coming from Britain, with the exception of cargo flights, starting at midnight Sunday. France too announced a complete ban on travel to the UK and it comes into effect at midnight tonight (Sunday). The initial ban will be for 48 hours, said PM Jean Castex.
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. Italy’s health minister, Roberto Speranza, said an order signed on Sunday blocks flights from Britain and prohibits entry into Italy by anyone who has been in the UK in the last 14 days. The order bans plane travel until January 6. The Czech Republic imposed stricter quarantine measures from people arriving from Britain. 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.
Johnson said on Saturday that a fast-moving new variant of the virus that is 70% more transmissible than existing strains appeared to be driving the rapid spread of new infections in London and southern England. But he stressed “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 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 on Sunday. The official said the strain had also been identified in Denmark, the Netherlands and Australia, where there was one case that didn’t spread further.
Viral mutations are not uncommon. And a similarly contagious version of the virus has emerged in South Africa, which seems to share some of the mutations seen in the British variant.