BERLIN - One by one, several European Union nations banned flights from the U.K. on Sunday and others were considering similar action in a bid to block a new strain of coronavirus sweeping across southern England from establishing a strong foothold on the continent.
Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Austria and Italy all announced restrictions on U.K. travel, hours after British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced that Christmas shopping and gatherings in southern England must be canceled because of rapidly spreading infections blamed on the new coronavirus variant.
Johnson immediately put those regions into a strict new Tier 4 restriction level, upending Christmas plans for millions.
The German government said that it’s banning flights coming from Britain in reaction to the new coronavirus strain. The transportation ministry said all U.K. flights with the exception of cargo flights were no longer allowed to land in Germany starting at midnight Sunday. It didn’t immediately say how long the flight ban would last.
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. Austria and Italy said they would halt flights from the U.K. but did not say exactly when that would take place.
Italy’s health minister, Roberto Speranza, said an order signed Sunday blocks flights from Britain and prohibits entry into Italy by anyone who has been in the U.K. in the last 14 days. The order bans plane travel until Jan. 6.
The Czech Republic imposed stricter quarantine measures from people arriving from Britain. An EU official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the talks were still ongoing, said Sunday afternoon that the European Commission was in touch with member states on the rapidly developing situation.
High-speed train operator Eurostar canceled its trains between London, Brussels and Amsterdam beginning Monday, but kept trains operating on the London-to-Paris route.
Johnson said Saturday that 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 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.
Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo said 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," he said, adding he hoped to have more clarity by Tuesday.
The World Health Organization tweeted late Saturday that it was "in close contact with U.K. officials on the new #COVID19 virus variant" and promised to update governments and the public as more is learned.
The new strain was identified in southeastern England in September and has been spreading in the area ever since, a WHO official told the BBC on Sunday.
"What we understand is that it does have increased transmissibility, in terms of its ability to spread," said Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO’s technical lead on COVID-19.
Studies are under way to better understand how fast it spreads and and whether "it’s related to the variant itself, or a combination of factors with behavior," she added.
She said the strain had also been identified in Denmark, the Netherlands and Australia, where there was one case that didn’t spread further.
"The longer this virus spreads, the more opportunities it has to change," she said. "So we really need to do everything we can right now to prevent spread, and minimizing that spread will reduce the chances of it changing."
Viruses mutate regularly, and scientists have found thousands of different mutations among samples of the virus causing COVID-19. Many of these changes have no effect on how easily the virus spreads or how severe symptoms are.
Susan Hopkins of Public Health England said while the variant has been circulating since September, it wasn’t until the last week that officials felt they had enough evidence to declare that it has higher transmissibility than other circulating coronaviruses.
U.S. President-elect Joe Biden’s nominee for U.S. surgeon general said Sunday that the emergence of the new strain doesn’t change the public health guidance on precautions for reducing the spread of the virus, such as wearing masks, social distancing and washing hands.
"While it seems to be more easily transmissible, we do not have evidence yet that this is a more deadly virus to an individual who acquires it," Vivek Murthy said on NBC’s "Meet the Press." "There’s no reason to believe that the vaccines that have been developed will not be effective against this virus, as well."
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 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 European Medicines Agency, meanwhile, is meeting Monday to approve the first COVID-19 vaccine for the European Union’s 27 nations, bringing vaccinations closer for millions of EU citizens. The vaccine made by German pharmaceutical company BioNTech and American drugmaker Pfizer is already in use in the United States, Britain, Canada and other countries.
The EMA moved up its assessment of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine by a week after heavy pressure from EU governments, especially Germany, which has said that after the EMA approval it could start vaccinating citizens as early as next Sunday.
In an urgent address to the nation on Saturday, Johnson ordered all non-essential shops, hairdressers and gyms in London and large parts of southern England closed and told Britons to reorganize their holiday plans. No mixing of households is now allowed indoors in the region, and only essential travel is permitted. 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.
After he spoke, videos emerged online 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. Health Secretary Matt Hancock called those scenes "totally irresponsible."
While Hancock insisted officials had acted "very quickly and decisively," critics said Britain’s Conservative government should have moved against rising infections and hospitalizations much earlier.
"The alarms bells have been ringing for weeks, but the prime minister chose to ignore them," said Keir Starmer, leader of the opposition Labour Party. "It is an act of gross negligence by a prime minister who, once again, has been caught behind the curve."
Sylvia Hui reported from London. Raf Casert in Brussels, Colleen Barry in Milan, Karel Janicek in Prague, and John Hanna in Washington, contributed to this report.