European nations ban flights from UK to prevent coronavirus mutation from spreading to continent

European nations ban flights from UK to prevent coronavirus mutation from spreading to continent

December 20, 2020

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Several European nations on Sunday banned flights from the United Kingdom to prevent a new strain of the coronavirus that is rapidly spreading across southern England from gaining traction on the continent.

Germany, Netherlands, Belgium, Austria, Italy and Ireland all announced restrictions on U.K. travel less than a week before Christmas. 

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, the international high-speed rail service connecting the United Kingdom with France, Belgium and the Netherlands via the Channel Tunnel. The train line canceled service between London, Brussels and Amsterdam beginning Monday, however, kept trains operating on the London-to-Paris route.

Austria and Italy said they would halt flights from the U.K. but did not say exactly when that would take place. Meanwhile, the Czech Republic imposed stricter quarantine measures on people arriving from Britain.

Italy, once the epicenter of the pandemic in Europe earlier this year, suspended flights from Great Britain "to protect Italians," Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio tweeted Sunday. About two dozen flights were scheduled to arrive in Italy on Sunday, most in the northern region of Lombardy – which was the hardest-hit region in the early days of the pandemic — but also to Venice and Rome.


The U.K. Health Secretary Matt Hancock warned Sunday that the new variant is "out of control." In appearances on BBC's "Andrew Marr Show" and Sky's "Sophy Ridge on Sunday," Hancock said everyone should act as if they have the virus, and suggested restrictions announced Saturday in Tier 4 areas could remain in place for at least the next several months until the vaccines can be distributed across the country.

Ireland imposed a 48-hour ban on all non-essential travel from England effective at midnight – it will apply to passengers on airplanes and ferries, though no restrictions will be set in place to limit travel between the Republic and Northern Ireland, the Irish Times reported.

Germany is banning all passenger flights from the U.K. as of midnight, German Health Minister Jens Spahn tweeted Sunday. He said the government on Monday will impose additional restrictions on travel between the U.K. and South Africa after reviewing reports about "mutated viruses."

Martina Fietz, spokeswoman for the federal government in Berlin, confirmed that German leaders were in contact with their European partners, and the federal police tweeted that people should only travel to the U.K. "if it is absolutely necessary," German broadcaster Deutsche Welle reported.


Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo said Sunday said he was issuing the flight ban for 24 hours starting at midnight "out of precaution." He said he hoped to have more clarity by Tuesday, recognizing "there are a great many questions about this new mutation."

In this Friday Dec. 18, 2020, file photo, a traveler wearing a face mask checks the flight departures at Schiphol Airport, near Amsterdam, Netherlands. The Netherlands is banning flights from the United Kingdom for the rest of the year in an attempt to make sure that a new strain of the COVID-19 virus in Britain does not reach its shores. (AP Photo/Peter Dejong, FILE)

Sweden was also considering a ban on travelers entering from the U.K., Reuters reported, citing Swedish public Broadcaster SVT. A formal decision will be made Monday, Swedish Minister of Home Affairs, Mikael Damberg, said.

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.

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.


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.

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.

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 Associated Press contributed to this report.

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