EU countries to ban UK flights after spread of new virus strain

EU countries including Italy, Belgium and the Netherlands have announced bans on flights from the UK following a rapid spike in coronavirus cases, caused in part by a more infectious new strain of coronavirus, and other capitals are discussing similar measures. 

Rome has informed the UK government of plans to suspend flights from the country, Italy’s foreign minister Luigi Di Maio said on social media on Sunday. The Dutch government said it was stopping flights from the UK starting 6am CET on Sunday, and the Belgian prime minister announced a plan for air and rail travel bans. Austria is also preparing to ban UK travellers, according to its health ministry.

France has called an emergency inner cabinet meeting later on Sunday to discuss the matter.

The unilateral moves sparked calls for a more co-ordinated EU response to the worsening UK situation. The Elysée Palace said French President Emmanuel Macron, who is in isolation outside Paris suffering from Covid-19, had spoken to German Chancellor Angela Merkel as well as EU Commission and Council presidents Ursula von der Leyen and Charles Michel about how to handle the crisis.

The steps came after the UK imposed tough lockdown restrictions following the discovery of a new variant of coronavirus that is more transmissible than other strains in circulation.

Scientists are alarmed by the new variant, and the number of genetic mutations that have led to it. However it does not appear to cause more severe symptoms, scientists have said, and it is not believed to be more resistant to vaccines. 

The rapid spread of the new strain prompted UK prime minister Boris Johnson to scrap earlier plans for five-day bubbles of up to three households over the Christmas period. Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s first minister, has banned travel between Scotland and other parts of the UK during the festive season. 

Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon announces new Covid-19 measures at a press conference on Saturday © Scottish Government

As alarm spread across Europe, a number of member states began to discuss ways of restricting travel from the UK.

News agency DPA quoted a senior German official as saying that banning flights from the UK to Germany was a “serious option”; the German health ministry declined to comment. 

The Spanish government said it had asked Ms von der Leyen and Mr Michel to co-ordinate an EU-wide response “to protect EU citizens [and] avoid unilateral approaches”. Madrid added that it expected a speedy response from the EU but, in its absence, it would “act in defence of the interests and rights of Spanish citizens”.

The Elysée said Mr Macron had spoken with his EU counterparts to discuss both Brexit and the health situation in the UK and South Africa, where the new strain has also been identified. 

Italy’s blockade is expected to come into effect from midnight tonight. Mr Di Maio wrote on Facebook: “As a government, we have a duty to protect Italians, which is why, after alerting the British government, we are about to sign a measure with the Ministry of Health to suspend flights to Great Britain.”

Austria’s ministry of public health said on Sunday that it was preparing to implement a blanket ban on all travellers from the UK. Those entering the country from Britain are already required to quarantine for 14 days. The new measures will prevent entry altogether. So far no cases of the new variant of coronavirus have been detected in the country, health officials said. 

The Dutch government said it would explore with other EU member states the scope for “further limiting the risk of the new strain of the virus being brought over from the UK”. The Netherlands had detected a case of the same virus strain in its population in early December, it confirmed, and this is now being investigated. 

KLM is flying planes out of the UK to Amsterdam with no passengers, only cargo; it is still taking passengers on inbound flights to the UK.

Heathrow said that operations were continuing and it did not have a current number for how many flights have been cancelled, as the situation was changing so rapidly: “As more countries announce UK bans then the picture is going to change.”

Eurostar said it would be “unable to run trains between London, Brussels and Amsterdam” on Monday as a result of the Belgian government’s decision, but said that London-Paris services would continue to run.

Belgium’s prime minister Alexander de Croo this weekend announced a bar on UK flights from midnight on Sunday.

Norway’s health minister Bent Hoie said the country was considering introducing further restrictions on arrivals from the UK. Health authorities would make sure recent arrivals from the UK were aware of quarantine rules and they could be automatically offered quick Covid tests. 

Ireland also warned that it was considering examining proposals on Sunday to impose a ban from midnight on flights and ferries coming in from Britain, said an senior Irish official. The ban would apply for an initial period of 48 hours, the official added.

Stephen Donnelly, Irish health minister, told national broadcaster RTE that Dublin was “looking at travel to and from the island of Britain and Ireland generally and we’re giving it a lot of serious consideration”.

UK travellers also face greater restrictions on their ability to enter the EU after the end of the post-Brexit transition period. From January 1 the UK will be subject to a system that only allows non-essential travel from a handful of non-EU countries with low coronavirus infection rates, the European Commission said earlier this month.

Reporting by Sam Fleming, Victor Mallet, Martin Arnold, Daniel Dombey, Davide Ghiglione, Leslie Hook, Sam Jones and Richard Milne

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