Fearing new coronavirus variant, several countries halt travel to and from the U.K.
'No evidence' variant found in southern England more lethal, says British PM
Several European Union countries 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 establishing a strong foothold on 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 starting midnight Sunday, the prime minister's office announced. The French statement said the short two-day period 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."
The German government said it was banning flights coming from Britain in reaction to the new coronavirus strain. The Transportation Ministry said all U.K. flights with the exception of cargo flights were no longer allowed to land in Germany starting at 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 for 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, while Belgium issued a flight ban for 24 hours starting at midnight and also halted train links to Britain, including the Eurostar. Austria said it 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.
Johnson said Saturday that a fast-moving new variant of the virus that is 70 per cent 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 that "there's no evidence to suggest it is more lethal or causes more severe illness," or that vaccines will be less effective against it.
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.
Variants found around the world
Beyond Europe, Canada is halting flights from the U.K. starting midnight on Sunday. The decision followed an afternoon meeting of the Incident Response Group (IRG), a group of cabinet members and senior government officials.
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, "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.
We’re in close contact with UK 🇬🇧 officials on the new <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/COVID19?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#COVID19</a> virus variant. They’ll continue to share info & results of their analysis & ongoing studies. We’ll update Member States & public as we learn more about the characteristics of this virus variant & any implications.—@WHO
"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.
WATCH | No need to worry about new coronavirus strain, says virologist:
"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.
Origins of new strain in U.K. unknown
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 said. But by December, he said, it was causing more than 60 per cent of infections in London.
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. 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.
With files from CBC News