Several European countries placed new restrictions on travel to and from the UK (United Kingdom) to make sure that a new strain of Covid sweeping across southern England does not establish a strong foothold on the continent.
The Netherlands on Sunday 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, including the Eurostar.
“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.
The Dutch public health body, the RIVM, therefore “recommends any introduction of this virus strain from the UK be limited as much as possible by limiting and/or controlling passenger movements”.
A case study in the Netherlands “at the beginning of December revealed a virus with the variant described” in the UK, the ministry said.
Austria said it would also halt flights from the UK but there were no immediate details on the timing of the ban, the Austrian news agency APA reported.
The Czech Republic, meanwhile, imposed stricter quarantine measures from people arriving from the UK.
Meanwhile, Italian Foreign Minister Luigi di Maio said in a Facebook post his country also planned to suspend travel to the UK.
“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.”
German officials, meanwhile, were considering “serious options” regarding incoming flights from the UK, but have not yet taken action.
Ducth experts said they were looking at how the infection happened and whether there were related cases, it added.
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s cabinet’s ordered the ban on flights from the UK as a “precautionary” measure, the ministry said, adding that the Dutch government is reviewing other modes of transport.
“Over the next few days, together with other EU member states, the government will explore the scope for further limiting the risk of the new strain of the virus being brought over from the UK,” it added.
Netherlands is under a five-week lockdown until mid-January with schools and all non-essential shops closed to slow a surge in the virus.
The ban on UK flights comes after British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and scientists announced on Saturday that the new strain of coronavirus identified in the country is up to 70 percent more infectious.
But Johnson said the new variant is not thought to be more deadly and vaccines should still be effective.
“There’s no evidence to suggest it is more lethal or causes more severe illness,” Johnson said, or that vaccines will be less effective against it.
The British prime minister also said London and southeast England, which are currently in the highest level of a three-tier system of rules, would now be placed in a new Tier 4 level.
World Health Organization (WHO) said it was in close contact with British officials and would update the public “as we learn more about the characteristics of this virus variant and any implications”.