EU countries ban travel from UK after spread of new virus strain

A growing number of EU countries including Germany, Italy, Belgium, Austria and the Netherlands moved over the weekend to halt travel from the UK because of its sharp rise in coronavirus cases, caused in part by a more infectious new strain.

Germany, Italy and the Netherlands announced on Sunday that they were stopping flights from the UK while Belgium banned air and rail travel. Austria said it was preparing a blanket ban and Ireland was considering sweeping curbs on passenger flights and ferries. Eurostar said it would be unable to “run trains between London, Brussels and Amsterdam” from Monday. France has called an emergency inner cabinet meeting later on Sunday.

The unilateral moves sparked calls for a more co-ordinated EU response to the UK situation as scientists also expressed concern that the more transmissible new variant had appeared in other countries including Denmark and the Netherlands.

French President Emmanuel Macron, who is in isolation outside Paris suffering from Covid-19, spoke to German Chancellor Angela Merkel as well as EU Commission and Council presidents Ursula von der Leyen and Charles Michel, the Elysée Palace said.

Mr Michel’s cabinet convened a video conference call of officials from EU capitals on Sunday to discuss the situation.

The spread of the new strain in the south-east of England 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, member states began to restrict travel from the UK.

The German government said on Sunday afternoon that it was introducing an “immediate and temporary” ban on UK flights “to protect the population of Germany”.

The move is an “urgent necessity in the public interest” because of the new mutation of the virus, Berlin said. The decree excludes flights to return aircraft that are stationed in Germany and their crews from the UK, postal and air freight, empty planes and flights with medical staff in the interest of public health.

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”.

Italy’s blockade on UK travellers is expected to come into effect from midnight tonight. Foreign minister Luigi Di Maio wrote on Facebook: “As a government, we have a duty to protect Italians.”

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. So far no cases of the new variant have been detected in the country.

The Netherlands confirmed it had detected a case of the same virus strain in its population in early December, and was now investigating this. KLM is flying planes out of the UK to Amsterdam carrying no cargo but no passengers; it is still taking passengers on inbound flights to the UK.

Belgium’s prime minister Alexander de Croo 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.

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”.

A senior Irish official said that Ireland was considering a ban on flights and ferries coming in from Britain from midnight tonight. The ban would apply for an initial period of 48 hours, the official added.

Heathrow airport did not have a number for how many flights had been cancelled, as the situation was changing so rapidly: “As more countries announce UK bans then the picture is going to 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 — would fall further due to the bans. 

UK travellers already faced 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 allows only 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, Guy Chazan, Victor Mallet, Daniel Dombey, Davide Ghiglione, Leslie Hook, Arthur Beesley, Sam Jones and Richard Milne

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