Countries across Europe and beyond began closing their borders to travelers from the UK on Sunday and the European Union set up a crisis management meeting the day after UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson citing a major lockdown on London and Surrounding area had concerns about a new, rapidly spreading variant of the coronavirus.
London train stations were full of crowds on Saturday night, scrambling to escape the city to escape the new restrictions that went into effect at midnight and quarantined the capital and other areas of the rest of the country. These were the toughest measures to be taken since the country was first lockdown in March.
On Sunday, UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock called those who packed trains “clearly irresponsible”. He also said that the restrictions that Mr Johnson was imposing could last for months.
The first wave of countries excluding travelers from the UK was in Europe. The Netherlands said they would suspend flights from the UK from Sunday through January 1, noting that the variant found in England “should spread easier and faster”.
Italy also suspended air traffic and Belgian officials on Sunday imposed a 24-hour ban on arrivals from the UK by plane or train, which could be extended. Germany is developing regulations to limit travelers from the UK as well as travelers from South Africa, where a similarly contagious version of the virus has emerged. Austria, Ireland, France and Bulgaria also announced bans.
Spain asked the European Union for a coordinated response, and senior officials from the bloc’s 27 member states met on a video conference Sunday evening to share their plans. They agreed to decide on coordinated measures at the crisis management meeting on Monday morning.
Within a few hours, more countries have taken action. Iran has suspended flights to the UK for two weeks, Reuters reported. Israel banned foreign arrivals not only from the UK, but also from South Africa and Denmark, where a coronavirus mutation found in mink was transmitted back into the human population, according to The Times of Israel. Turkey has temporarily suspended flights from these three countries as well as the Netherlands, Reuters said.
Traffic officials in England said they would increase the number of police officers overseeing hubs such as train stations to ensure that only essential journeys are made.
Viral mutations are not uncommon, and British officials said this variant has been discovered in a handful of other countries. A similarly contagious version of the virus has emerged in South Africa and appears to share some of the mutations seen in the British variant.
The estimate of higher transferability for the UK variant is based on modeling and has not been confirmed by laboratory experiments, said Muge Cevik, an infectious disease expert at the University of St Andrews in Scotland and a scientific advisor to the UK government.
“Overall, I think we need a little more experimental data,” she said. “We cannot completely rule out that some of this portability data is related to human behavior.”