People at St Pancras station in London, wait to board the last train to Paris today, Sunday Dec. 20, 2020. Millions of people in England have learned they must cancel their Christmas get-togethers and holiday shopping trips. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Saturday that holiday gatherings can’t go ahead and non-essential shops must close in London and much of southern England. (Stefan Rousseau/PA via AP)

People at St Pancras station in London, wait to board the last train to Paris today, Sunday Dec. 20, 2020. Millions of people in England have learned they must cancel their Christmas get-togethers and holiday shopping trips. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Saturday that holiday gatherings can’t go ahead and non-essential shops must close in London and much of southern England. (Stefan Rousseau/PA via AP)

More EU nations ban travel from UK, fearing coronavirus variant

British PM announced gatherings in southern England are cancelled due to rapidly spreading infections

A growing list of European Union nations moved to ban flights from the U.K. on Sunday and others were considering similar action, in a bid to block a new strain of coronavirus sweeping across southern England from spreading to the continent.

France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium, Austria, Ireland and Bulgaria all announced restrictions on U.K. travel, hours after British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced that Christmas shopping and gatherings in southern England must be cancelled because of rapidly spreading infections blamed on the new coronavirus variant.

Johnson immediately put those regions into a strict new Tier 4 restriction level, upending Christmas plans for millions.

France banned all travel from the U.K. for 48 hours from midnight Sunday, the prime minister’s office announced. The French statement said that would buy authorities time to find a “common doctrine” on how to deal with the threat. It specified that “flows of people or transport to the U.K. are not affected.”

Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo said he was issuing a flight ban for 24 hours starting at midnight “out of precaution.” Belgium also halted train links to Britain, including the Eurostar.

“There are a great many questions about this new mutation,” he said, adding he hoped to have more clarity by Tuesday.

The German government said all flights coming from Britain, except cargo flights, were no longer allowed to land starting midnight Sunday. It didn’t immediately say how long the flight ban would last, but news agency dpa reported it would be in place at least until Dec. 31.

Germany, which holds the rotating EU presidency, also called a special crisis meeting on Monday to co-ordinate the response to the virus news among the bloc’s 27 member states.

The Netherlands banned flights from the U.K. for at least the rest of the year. Ireland issued a 48-hour flight ban. Austria and Italy said they would halt flights from the U.K. but did not say exactly when that would take place.

Italy’s health minister, Roberto Speranza, said an order signed Sunday blocks flights from Britain and prohibits entry into Italy by anyone who has been in the U.K. in the last 14 days. The order bans plane travel until Jan. 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 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 in recent weeks. 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.

Beyond Europe, Israel also said it was banning flights from Britain, Denmark and South Africa because those were the countries where the mutation is found.

The World Health Organization tweeted late Saturday that it was “in close contact with U.K. 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.

“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 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 didn’t 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.

British health authorities said that while the variant has been circulating since September, it wasn’t until the last week that officials felt they had enough evidence to declare that it has higher transmissibility than other circulating coronaviruses.

Patrick Vallance, the British government’s chief scientific adviser, said officials are 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 aren’t certain whether it originated in the U.K., Vallance added. But by December, he said it was causing over 60% of infections in London.

U.S. President-elect Joe Biden’s nominee for U.S. surgeon general said Sunday that the emergence of the new strain doesn’t 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,” Vivek Murthy said on 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.”

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 reign in their outbreaks.

Britain has seen over 67,000 deaths in the pandemic, the second-highest confirmed toll in Europe after Italy. Europe as a whole has recorded nearly 499,000 virus deaths, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University that experts believe is an undercount, due to limited testing and missed cases.

The European Medicines Agency, meanwhile, is meeting Monday to approve the first COVID-19 vaccine for the European Union’s 27 nations, bringing vaccinations closer for millions of EU citizens. The vaccine made by German pharmaceutical company BioNTech and American drugmaker Pfizer is already in use in the United States, Britain, Canada and other countries.

The EMA moved up its assessment of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine by a week after heavy pressure from EU governments, especially Germany, which has said that after the EMA approval it could start vaccinating citizens as early as next Sunday.

In an urgent address to the nation on Saturday, Johnson ordered all non-essential shops, hairdressers and gyms in London and large parts of southern England closed and told Britons to reorganize their holiday plans. No mixing of households is now allowed indoors in the region, and only essential travel is permitted. 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.

After he spoke, videos emerged online that showed crowds of people rushing to London’s train stations, apparently making a dash for places in the U.K. with less stringent coronavirus restrictions before the new rules took effect. Health Secretary Matt Hancock called those scenes “totally irresponsible.”

While Hancock insisted officials had acted “very quickly and decisively,” critics said Britain’s Conservative government should have moved against rising infections much earlier.

“The alarms bells have been ringing for weeks, but the prime minister chose to ignore them,” said Keir Starmer, leader of the opposition Labour Party. “It is an act of gross negligence by a prime minister who, once again, has been caught behind the curve.”

___

Sylvia Hui reported from London. Thomas Adamson in Paris, Raf Casert in Brussels, Colleen Barry in Milan, Karel Janicek in Prague, Veselin Toshkov in Sofia, Bulgaria, and John Hanna in Washington, contributed to this report.

Kirsten Grieshaber And Sylvia Hui, The Associated Press


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism during the pandemic? Make a donation here.

CoronavirusEuropean Union

Just Posted

Swiss guard at Vatican City. The Pontifical Swiss Guard is a minor armed forces and honour guards unit maintained by the Holy See that protects the Pope and the Apostolic Palace, serving as the de facto military of Vatican City. Photo: Etienne Girardet on Unsplash
News from The Vatican

Pope Francis issued a law decreeing that women can be installed in the lay ministries of lectors

“Think on These Things” is a column written by retired Creston pastor Ian Cotton. (File photo)
Think on These Things: Everyone is Invited

“Tell them there is healing, cleansing for every soul…”

North Okanagan business Hytec Kohler set up a COVID-19 vaccination clinic at the Spallumcheen plant Friday, May 14. (Jennifer Smith - Morning Star)
More than half of eligible adults in Interior Health vaccinated

Over 365,000 vaccine doses have been administered throughout the Interior Health region

Student-nurse Kendra Waterstreet administers the Pfizer vaccine to Litia Fleming at the Waneta Plaza vaccination clinic in the old Zellers buiding. Photo: Jim Bailey
Trail vaccination clinic readies for adults age 40+

B.C.’s state of emergency is extended through the end of day on May 25

Kerry Reed
West Kootenay Fishing Report: Spring fishing, the bite is on!!

Anglers having great results on Kootenay Lake and Columbia River

Daily confirmed COVID-19 cases reported to B.C. public health, seven-day rolling average in white, to May 12, 2021. (B.C. Centre for Disease Control)
B.C. preparing ‘Restart 2.0’ from COVID-19 as June approaches

Daily infections fall below 500 Friday, down to 387 in hospital

Poached trees that were taken recently on Vancouver Island in the Mount Prevost area near Cowichan, B.C. are shown on Sunday, May 10, 2021. Big trees, small trees, dead trees, softwoods and hardwoods have all become valuable targets of tree poachers in British Columbia as timber prices hit record levels. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jen Osborne.
Tree poaching from public forests increasing in B.C. as lumber hits record prices

Prices for B.C. softwood lumber reached $1,600 for 1,000 board feet compared with about $300 a year ago

The warm weather means time for a camping trip, or at least an excursion into nature. How much do you know about camps and camping-related facts? (John Arendt - Summerland Review)
QUIZ: Are you ready to go camping?

How many camp and camping-related questions can you answer?

On Friday, May 14 at Meadow Gardens Golf Club in Pitt Meadows, Michael Caan joined a very elite club of golfers who have shot under 60 (Instagram)
Crowds at English Bay were blasted with a large beam of light from an RCMP Air-1 helicopter on Friday, May 14. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Marc Grandmaison
Police enlist RCMP helicopter to disperse thousands crowded on Vancouver beach

On Friday night, police were witness to ‘several thousand people staying well into the evening’

People shop in Chinatown in Vancouver on Friday, February 5, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Vancouver community leaders call for action following 717% rise in anti-Asian hate crimes

‘The alarming rise of anti-Asian hate in Canada and south of the border shows Asians have not been fully accepted in North America,’ says Carol Lee

Sinikka Gay Elliott was reported missing on Salt Spring Island on Wednesday, May 12. (Courtesty Salt Spring RCMP)
Body of UBC professor found on Salt Spring Island, no foul play suspected

Sinikka Elliott taught sociology at the university

The first Black judge named to the BC Supreme Court, Selwyn Romilly, was handcuffed at 9:15 a.m. May 14 while walking along the seawall. (YouTube/Screen grab)
Police apologize after wrongly arresting B.C.’s first Black Supreme Court Justice

At 81 years old, the retired judge was handcuffed in public while out for a walk Friday morning

Dr. Steve Beerman, of Nanaimo, shows off his Dr. David Bishop Gold Medal, awarded for distinguished medical service. (Karl Yu/News Bulletin)
Queen presents Vancouver Island doctor with award for global drowning prevention

Dr. Steve Beerman receives Royal Life Saving Society’s King Edward VII Cup at virtual ceremony

Most Read