Several EU nations halt UK flights, fearing virus variant

BERLIN — One by one, several European Union nations banned flights from the U.K. on Sunday and others like Germany 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.

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 on Sunday, most in the northern region of Lombardy but also to Venice and Rome.

German officials, meanwhile, said they were considering “serious options” regarding incoming flights from the U.K. and 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 EU Commission was in touch with member states on the rapidly developing situation.

Just days before Christmas, 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.

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

Johnson said 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 added “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.

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 circulating 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 behavior,” she added.

She said the strain had also been identified in Denmark, the Netherlands and Australia, where there was one case that did not 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, and minimizing that spread will reduce the chances of it changing.”

Susan Hopkins of Public Health England said 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.

Germany has not yet spelled out a ban but is considering limiting or halting flights from the U.K. as well, the dpa news agency reported Sunday.

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 closed all non-essential shops, hairdressers, gyms and pools and told Britons to reorganize their holiday plans. No mixing of households is now allowed indoors in Tier 4 areas, including London, and only essential travel is permitted in and out of the area. 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 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.”

“We in government of course have a responsibility, but so does every single person,” he said. “The plea that I have is that people will play their part. Because it is only by acting — all of us — that we can get this under control.”

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

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Hui reported from London. Raf Casert in Brussels and Karel Janicek in Prague contributed reporting.

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