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European nations halt UK flights, fearing new COVID-19 variant

European nations halt UK flights, fearing new COVID-19 variant

FILE PHOTO: A traveller wearing a face mask checks the flight departures at Schiphol Airport, near Amsterdam, Netherlands. (AP Photo/Peter Dejong)

BERLIN: Several European nations on Sunday (Dec 20) have or are planning to halt flights from the UK to ensure that a new strain of coronavirus sweeping across southern England does not establish a strong foothold on the continent.

The Netherlands banned flights from the UK 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. 

German officials were considering “serious options” regarding incoming flights from the UK, but have not yet taken action.

The Netherlands said it will assess “with other European Union nations the possibilities to contain the import of the virus from the United Kingdom".

READ: Britain says new COVID-19 strain 'out of control'

The three EU governments say their response comes in reaction to tougher measures imposed on Saturday in London and surrounding areas by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. 

He immediately put those regions into a new Tier 4 level of restrictions, saying that a fast-moving new variant of the virus that is 70 per cent more transmissible than existing strains appears to be driving the rapid spread of new infections in London and southern England.

“There’s no evidence to suggest it is more lethal or causes more severe illness,” the British prime minister stressed, or that vaccines will be less effective against it.

Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo said on Sunday said he was issuing the flight ban for 24 hours starting at midnight “out of precaution.”

“There are a great many questions about this new mutation and if it is not already on the mainland,” he said. He hoped to have more clarity by Tuesday.

Germany has not yet spelt out a ban but is considering limiting or halting flights from the UK as well, the dpa news agency reported Sunday. A high-ranking German official told dpa that restrictions on flights from Britain are a “serious option".

READ: British PM orders new curbs to slow more infectious COVID-19 strain

Germany, which holds the rotating presidency of the 27-nation EU, was in contact with its neighbours and was following all developments about the new variant closely, dpa reported.

Italy plans to suspend flights to and from Britain over fears of a new strain of the coronavirus detected there, Foreign Minister Luigi di Maio said in a Facebook post.

"As a government we have the duty to protect Italians, for this reason, after having notified the British government, with the Ministry of Health we are about to sign the provision to suspend flights with Great Britain," Di Maio said. 

"Our priority is to protect Italy and our compatriots."

Europe has been walloped this fall by soaring new infections and deaths due to a resurgence of the virus, and many nations have reimposed a series of restrictions to reign in their outbreaks.

Britain has seen more than 67,000 deaths in the pandemic, the second-highest confirmed toll in Europe after Italy.

Johnson on Saturday 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 into and out of such areas. 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.

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Source: AGENCIES/lk

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