EU countries including Italy, Belgium and the Netherlands have announced a ban on flights from the UK following the sharp rise in coronavirus cases caused in part by a new, more infectious strainand other capitals are discussing similar measures.
Rome has informed the British government of its intention to suspend flights from the country, Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio said on social media on Sunday. The Dutch government has said it is halting flights from the UK from 6 a.m. on Sunday, and the Belgian prime minister has announced a plan to ban air and rail travel.
Austria is also preparing to ban British travelers, according to its health ministry, while Ireland plans to significantly reduce borders on passenger flights and ferries.
Eurostar said it would stop trains between London, Brussels and Amsterdam on Monday, but that London-Paris services would continue to operate.
France called an emergency cabinet meeting later Sunday to discuss the situation.
The unilateral measures sparked calls for a more coordinated EU response to the worsening situation in the UK. The Elysee Palace said French President Emmanuel Macron, isolated outside Paris suffering from Covid-19, spoke to German Chancellor Angela Merkel as well as European Commission and Council Presidents Ursula von der Leyen and Charles Michel, on how to deal with the crisis.
The steps came after the UK imposed strict lockdown restrictions following the discovery of a new variant of the coronavirus that is more transmissible than other circulating strains.
Scientists are alarmed by the new variant and the number of genetic mutations that led to it. However, it doesn’t appear to cause more severe symptoms, scientists said, and it’s not believed to be more resistant to vaccines.
The rapid spread of the new strain has prompted UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson to abandon earlier five-day bubble plans for up to three households over the Christmas period. Nicola Sturgeon, First Minister of Scotland, has banned travel between Scotland and other parts of the UK during the holiday season.
As alarms spread across Europe, a number of member states began discussing ways to restrict travel from the UK.
The DPA news agency 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 coordinate an EU-wide response “to protect EU citizens [and] avoid unilateral approaches ”. Madrid added that it expected a quick response from the EU but that in its absence it would “act in defense of the interests and rights of Spanish citizens”.
The Elysee Palace said Mr Macron had spoken with his EU counterparts to discuss Brexit and the health situation in the UK and South Africa, where the new strain has also been identified.
The blockade of Italy is expected to go 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 public health ministry said on Sunday it was preparing to implement a blanket ban on all travelers from the UK. Those entering the country from Britain are already required to quarantine for 14 days. The new measures will completely prevent entry. So far, no cases of the new variant of the coronavirus have been detected in the country, health officials said.
The Dutch government has said it will explore with other EU member states the possibility of “further limiting the risk of the new strain of the virus being imported from the UK”. The Netherlands had detected a case of the same viral strain in its population in early December, he confirmed, and this is currently under investigation.
KLM flies planes from the UK to Amsterdam without passengers, only with freight; it still takes passengers on inbound flights to the UK.
Belgian Prime Minister Alexander de Croo this weekend announced a ban on British flights from midnight Sunday.
Norwegian Health Minister Bent Hoie said the country was considering introducing new restrictions on arrivals from the UK. Health authorities are said to ensure that recent arrivals from the UK are aware of the quarantine rules and may automatically be offered rapid Covid tests.
Stephen Donnelly, Irish Minister for Health, told the national broadcaster RTE that Dublin “was considering traveling to and from the island of Great Britain and Ireland in general and we are seriously considering it”.
Ireland plans to ban flights and ferries from Britain from midnight, a senior Irish official said. The ban would apply for an initial period of 48 hours, the official added.
Heathrow said operations were continuing and did not have a current figure for the number of canceled flights as the situation was changing so rapidly: “As more countries announce bans in the UK- United, the situation will change. “
Gatwick Airport said it expected the number of daily flights – already reduced from around 700 before Covid to around 200 during the 2020 winter holiday season – to decline further due to bans on travel.
British travelers too 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 under a system that only allows non-essential travel from a handful of non-EU countries with low rates of coronavirus infection, the European Commission has said earlier this month.
Reporting by Sam Fleming, Victor Mallet, Martin Arnold, Daniel Dombey, Davide Ghiglione, Leslie Hook, Arthur Beesley, Sam Jones and Richard Milne