LONDON (Reuters) – European countries began to close their doors to travellers from the United Kingdom on Sunday, with several banning planes and trains over concerns about a new coronavirus strain that is spreading quickly through the country.
Belgium said it would close its borders to flights and trains – including the popular Eurostar service – coming from the United Kingdom.
Italy also ordered a suspension of flights from Britain, as did the Netherlands.
“The COVID variant recently discovered in London is worrying and will need to be investigated by our scientists,” Italian Health Minister Roberto Speranza said.
“In the meantime we choose the path of maximum prudence.”
Germany will restrict flights from Britain and South Africa – which has also detected a new coronavirus strain, a government spokesman said.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced on Saturday that the new strain had led to spiralling infection numbers. His government tightened its COVID-19 restrictions for London and nearby areas, and also reversed plans to ease restrictions over the Christmas period.
The travel curbs also compound problems for the United Kingdom as it finally exits the European Union on Dec. 31 after a transition period this year. London and Brussels have so far failed to reach a post-Brext trade deal, raising the prospect of chaos in goods traffic.
Belgian Prime Minister Alexander de Croo said the ban on incoming travel from Britain covers Eurostar services via the Channel Tunnel and will take effect for at least 24 hours from midnight on Sunday, broadcaster VRT said.
Belgium was also in touch with France over road transit passengers from Britain, VRT said.
The Italian order blocked any flights departing from Britain and prohibited anyone who had transited through it in the last 14 days from entering Italy.
The Italian health ministry said flights leaving for Britain would not be affected, to allow those living there to return home.
The Netherlands banned flights carrying passengers from the United Kingdom from Sunday and the restrictions will remain in place until Jan. 1, the Dutch government said.
Germany wants to ban all flights from the United Kingdom from midnight until Jan. 6, Bild newspaper said, citing government sources.
Austria is also planning to ban flights from Britain, the APA news agency said, citing the health ministry.
At London’s St. Pancras International station, the terminal for Eurostar, thousands of travellers were trying to secure places on trains.
“We got the last two tickets for today,” said a Frenchman named Leny. “We each respectively had tickets for Monday and Tuesday. But given the situation and what is happening we didn’t want to take any risk. And we were the last to be able to do so.”
COORDINATED EU RESPONSE
The Spanish government said it had asked the European Commission and the European Council for a coordinated EU response to the new situation. Otherwise it would act unilaterally, it said.
The Commission and the Council were in touch with member states, EU officials said.
Like other countries in Europe, Britain is battling to contain new waves of the virus. The number of coronavirus cases in Britain surged by 35,928 on Sunday, the highest daily rise since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, and it recorded 326 deaths, taking the official toll to more than 67,000.
In addition to the measures announced for England, the United Kingdom’s other nations, who control their own anti-coronavirus policies, tightened restrictions. Scotland has imposed a ban on travel to the rest of the United Kingdom.
Reporting by Reuters bureaus; Writing by Angus MacSwan; Editing by Frances Kerry