France, Germany, Ireland and a host of other European countries have imposed restrictions on travel with the UK, in a bid to stop the spread of a new strain of the coronavirus that is believed to be up to 70% more infectious.
France announced on Sunday evening that it would suspend all travel from the United Kingdom, including the transport of goods, for 48 hours. The decision came after French President Emmanuel Macron called an emergency health council meeting to discuss how to react to the UK government tightening Covid-19 measures.
On Monday, Poland and Norway became the latest countries to announce temporary bans on flights from Britain. Other countries to have suspended incoming flights include the Netherlands, Austria, Italy, Romania, Belgium and Bulgaria.
The first restrictions were announced just hours after British Prime Minister Boris Johnson imposed new Covid-19 measures on London and parts of southeast England, ruining Christmas holiday plans for millions. Households in those regions cannot mix, and all non-essential shops must close.
After Johnson spoke, videos emerged online that showed crowds of people rushing to London's train stations, apparently making a dash for places in the UK with less stringent coronavirus restrictions before the new rules took effect. UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock called those scenes "totally irresponsible".
Johnson was due to chair a meeting of the government's emergency committee on Monday amid warnings of “significant disruption” around the ports in the English Channel, with tailbacks going back miles into the southeastern English county of Kent.
The government has urged everyone to avoid traveling to Kent, which hosts many of the cross-Channel ports, notably at Dover. Eurotunnel has also suspended services.
British Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said France’s ban on freight hauliers was “slightly surprising” and that contingency plans for Kent were being put in place, including the opening up of a lorry park.
“The Kent Dover-to-Calais Eurotunnel, what we call the short straits, is probably about 20% of goods going to and from, in and out of the country," he told Sky News. “But it’s not the mainstay. Most goods actually come in and out by unaccompanied containers and those will continue to flow.”
Shapps insisted that the public won't notice any shortages “for the most part” as a result of the ban on lorries and that the supply of coronavirus vaccines will continue as they come via containers that are unaffected.
All this economic disruption comes at a time of huge uncertainty for the UK, less than two weeks before it leaves the EU’s tariff-free single market and customs union on December 31.
'More difficult to detect'
European countries have announced travel bans of varying length, with Bulgaria declaring the longest ban: a suspension of all flights between the two countries until the end of January.
Belgium said travel would be suspended for at least 24 hours, while the Netherlands said its ban will last until January 1.
“An infectious mutation of the Covid-19 virus is circulating in the United Kingdom. It is said to spread more easily and faster and is more difficult to detect,” the Dutch health ministry said in a statement.
In Ireland, flights arriving from Britain are banned for 48 hours at least and people have been asked not to "travel to Ireland, by air or sea", though ferry crossings for freight will continue
Sweden said it was preparing a decision to ban travel from the UK, and would announce its decision on Monday.
In the United States, authorities said that they were looking "very carefully" into the new virus variant seen in the UK, although held back from suggesting that the US would follow the example of European countries and suspend flights with the UK.
'No evidence' new strain is more lethal
Britain's Johnson said early data suggests the virus circulating in London and southeast England is up to 70 percent more transmissible. But he stressed “there’s no evidence to suggest it is more lethal or causes more severe illness,” or that vaccines will be less effective against it.
The new strain has also been identified in Denmark, the Netherlands and Australia, where there was one case that didn't spread further.
On Monday, French Health Minister Olivier Véran said it was "entirely possible" the new strain was already circulating in France, although recent tests had not detected it in the country.
(FRANCE 24 with AP, AFP and REUTERS)