European countries have reacted to the discovery of a fast-spreading strain of Covid-19 in England by announcing bans on flights carrying passengers from the UK, as the World Health Organization called on its members in Europe to step up measures in the face of the new variant.
Austria, Belgium, Italy and the Netherlands all moved to stop travel from the UK on Sunday, with similar plans reportedly being considered by France and Germany.
The moves came as millions of people in London and the south-east began their first full day of a new lockdown and the UK health secretary, Matt Hancock, said the newly identified strain of the virus was “out of control”.
Belgium is suspending flight and Eurostar arrivals from Britain from midnight local time on Sunday. The prime minister, Alexander De Croo, told Belgian television channel VRT the ban would be in place for at least 24 hours.
Italy’s foreign minister, Luigi Di Maio, said the government had decided to act after the UK “raised the alarm about a new form of Covid as a result of a mutation of the virus”.
He added: “As a government we have the duty to protect Italians and for this reason, after having warned the British government, the health ministry will sign a provision for the suspension of flights with the UK. Our priority is to protect Italy and our compatriots.”
Di Maio offered no more details, but flights arriving in Italy from the UK on Sunday are not thought to be immediately affected. Austria is also planning to ban flights, the APA news agency said, citing the health ministry.
The Dutch ban, which came into effect from 6am local time on Sunday, will last until 1 January.
Germany wants to ban all flights from the UK from midnight until 6 January, Bild newspaper reported, citing government sources. German chancellor Angela Merkel’s cabinet will vote later on Sunday on a decree prepared by the health minister, it said.
Merkel held a conference call with the French president Emmanuel Macron and EU chiefs Ursula von der Leyen and Charles Michel about the matter.
France is also considering suspending flights and trains from Britain after the new strain was detected, BFM Television reported.
The Spanish government said it had asked the European commission and the European council to come up with a “joint, co-ordinated response” to the situation, but added it would “act in defence of the interests and rights of Spanish citizens” if one was not forthcoming.
The European commission did not immediately respond to an AFP query as to whether a prohibition on travellers from the UK would be recommended for all EU countries.
Were it to continue into January, the travel disruption could exacerbate transport problems caused by Brexit as Britain leaves the EU’s single market, which guarantees movement within its borders.
The WHO said it was in close contact with British officials and that outside the UK nine cases of the new strain have been reported in Denmark, as well as one case in the Netherlands and another in Australia. “Across Europe, where transmission is intense and widespread, countries need to redouble their control and prevention approaches,” a spokeswoman for WHO Europe said.
The emergency restrictions announced by the UK government came after Public Health England said it had identified more than 1,100 cases of a new variant of coronavirus that may be speeding up the spread of the virus – particularly in south-east England.
“As a result of the rapid spread of the new variant, preliminary modelling data and rapidly rising incidence rates in the south-east, the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group now considers that the new strain can spread more quickly,” the government’s chief medical officer, Chris Whitty, said on Saturday. “We have alerted the World Health Organization and are continuing to analyse the available data to improve our understanding.”
AFP and the Associated Press contributed to this report