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Most EU countries including France and Germany have imposed bans on travel from the United Kingdom over concerns about a new, more infectious strain of the coronavirus.
At least 15 countries announced restrictions on Sunday — including Ireland, Germany, France, Poland, the Netherlands and Belgium — as politicians and scientists consider how to respond to an emerging variant of the coronavirus that is spreading fast in southern England. Both the Eurotunnel and Eurostar also announced suspended services in response to the restrictions, while the Port of Dover said it would be closed to “all accompanied traffic leaving the U.K. until further notice,” adding that the restrictions are likely to be in place for 48 hours.
The travel bans also raise the prospect of further disruption to ongoing post-Brexit trade talks between the EU and U.K., less than two weeks before Britain’s transition period out of the bloc is set to end. The U.K. government said it will hold a crisis meeting Monday to discuss the travel restrictions.
The German presidency of the Council of the EU called an urgent integrated political crisis response (IPCR) meeting on Monday to discuss coordinating measures for handling the new coronavirus mutation discovered in the U.K.
Council President Charles Michel’s Cabinet convened a videoconference Sunday with representatives from member countries to discuss the issue, an EU official said. Countries discussed the measures they intended to take, and will continue talks at the IPCR meeting at 11 a.m. CET Monday.
Meanwhile, French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Michel spoke Sunday to discuss the issue. An EU official said “Michel also had contacts with other leaders throughout the weekend.”
Some countries announced initially temporary travel bans, including France, which halted all travel from the U.K. by road, air, sea or rail, including people-moving freight, for 48 hours. The French government said it was suspending travel to buy time to reach a common EU approach and prepare a “secure” restart on December 22.
The travel restrictions appeared to have caught the U.K. government off guard.
“The prime minister will chair a [government emergency committee] COBR meeting tomorrow to discuss the situation regarding international travel, in particular the steady flow of freight into and out of the U.K.,” a U.K. government spokesperson said. “Further meetings are happening this evening and tomorrow morning to ensure robust plans are in place.”
U.K. Transport Secretary Grant Shapps later tweeted the government was advising public and truckers to avoid Kent because “significant disruption in the area” was expected. He added that his department was “urgently working” on contingency measures.
Industry body Logistics UK urged British shoppers not to panic buy and said it was working with the government to maintain supplies of fresh produce. “Shoppers should not panic buy — retailers will be making every effort to ensure there is stock within the system, including fresh produce, and it important that we remember that inbound traffic still has access to the U.K.”
Luxembourg’s ban is set to last 24 hours, as is Belgium’s, which will include Eurostar trains and starts at midnight, though Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo indicated it could be extended.
The German government said its ban would also start at midnight and that it planned to impose restrictions for travelers from South Africa as well.
The Dutch flight ban was the first to be imposed, effective from 6 a.m. CET on Sunday, and could remain in place until January 1, the government said. The Netherlands later said it would also ban ferry passengers from the U.K., saying this also applies to passengers with Dutch nationality.
“This strain of the virus is thought to spread more easily and more quickly and is also harder to detect,” the Dutch government said in a warning.
Ireland is banning non-essential travel for at least two days via air and sea connections with Britain, but not travel by road from Northern Ireland, which is part of the U.K.
Irish opposition Labour Party lawmaker Duncan Smith welcomed his country’s travel ban but warned the COVID-19 variant prevalent in Britain has probably arrived in Ireland already. He said Ireland’s failure to test incoming passengers at airports and ferry terminals would be partly to blame.
“If this new strain is so widespread now in the U.K. then it is highly likely it could already have spread to Ireland, but we don’t have testing at our frontiers to catch it,” Smith said.
Italy’s Foreign Affairs Minister Luigi Di Maio said in its “duty to protect Italians,” the government had decided to suspend flight links with the U.K.
Eurostar said its London-Brussels-Rotterdam-Amsterdam link would be suspended Monday, as the operator awaited updates from governments on their restrictions.
Other countries have ramped up quarantine and testing measures: From Monday, travelers arriving in Greece from the U.K. will be asked to quarantine for seven days; well beyond the three-day isolation required of other travelers. Spain said it would “reinforce” coronavirus testing of U.K. travelers and “defend the adoption of coordinated measures” at the IPCR meeting.
Outside Europe, several other countries introduced restrictions on travelers from the U.K. including Switzerland, Norway, Iran, Turkey, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Canada, Israel, Kuwait, El Salvador and Colombia, as well as Hong Kong.
U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Saturday evening announced new restrictions in London and the southeast of England in a bid to respond to rising case numbers. Johnson said scientific evidence suggested the new strain was up to 70 percent more transmissible than earlier variants.
The World Health Organization (WHO) said it was in “close contact” with U.K. officials about the new strain, and it would update governments and the public “as we learn more about the characteristics of this virus variant.”
Maria Van Kerkhove from the WHO told the BBC the new variant had been detected in Denmark and the Netherlands, as well as a case in Australia.
The Dutch government confirmed a single case was reported in early December and was being investigated further. “Pending further details and greater clarity on the situation in the United Kingdom, RIVM [the National Institute for Public Health and the Environment] has advised that the risk of the new virus strain being introduced to the Netherlands should be minimized as much as possible by restricting or regulating travel from the U.K.,” the Dutch announcement said.
Hans von der Burchard, Jacopo Barigazzi, Jillian Deutsch, Lili Bayer, Shawn Pogatchnik and Nektaria Stamouli contributed reporting.
This story has been updated.