EU ambassadors are to hold a crisis meeting in Brussels on Monday to discuss travel restrictions on the UK as multiple countries began closing their doors to travellers from Britain after the discovery of a fast-spreading strain of Covid-19.
As the World Health Organization called on European members to step up measures, Belgium, France, Germany, Ireland and the Netherlands on Sunday announced the suspension of air links – and in some cases rail and ferry routes – from Britain.
The bans were mostly scheduled to last about 48 hours as a precaution while the threat of the new strain was evaluated and a coordinated response worked out at a European level, national governments said.
An EU official told Agence France-Presse that representatives from the 27-member states would meet on Monday under the bloc’s integrated political crisis response mechanism designed to swiftly react to crises.
France said it was suspending all passenger and human-handled freight transport, whether by road, air, sea or rail, coming from the UK to France for 48 hours from midnight on Sunday.
Eurotunnel’s last shuttle left the UK for France at 9.34pm. The Dover port authority said its ferry terminal was closed to “all accompanied traffic leaving the UK until further notice due to border restrictions in France” and the Port of Calais confirmed it was closing to passenger traffic but not to freight exporters or unaccompanied trailers.
Germany, which is suspending flights from midnight on Sunday, has not yet detected the new strain but is taking reports from the UK “very seriously”, according to its health minister Jens Spahn.
A German government source said the restriction could be adopted by the entire 27-member EU bloc and that countries were also discussing a joint response over sea, road and rail links with Britain.
The German chancellor Angela Merkel held a conference call with the French president, Emmanuel Macron, and the EU chiefs Ursula von der Leyen and Charles Michel about the matter.
The Spanish government said it had asked the European commission and council to come up with a “joint, coordinated response” to the situation, but that it would “act in defence of the interests and rights of Spanish citizens” if one was not forthcoming.
Belgium is also suspending flight and Eurostar arrivals from Britain from midnight. The prime minister, Alexander De Croo, said the ban would initially be in place for at least 24 hours.
Italy, which said it had detected the new strain of the coronavirus in a patient who had recently returned from Britain, blocked all flights departing from Britain and barred anyone who had transited through the country in the past 14 days from entering Italian territory.
The foreign minister, Luigi Di Maio, said the government had decided to act after the UK raised the alarm about the new strain. “As a government we have the duty to protect Italians and for this reason, after having warned the British government, the health ministry will sign a provision for the suspension of flights with the UK,” he said. “Our priority is to protect Italy.”
Austria and Sweden also said they were preparing decisions to ban flights from the UK, but were still working out the details.
The Dutch ban, which came into effect from 6am local time on Sunday, will last until 1 January. Ireland will impose restrictions on flights and ferries from Britain from midnight, while Bulgaria is suspending flights from and to the UK from midnight until 31 January. Romania also said it had banned all flights to and from the UK for two weeks starting on Monday afternoon.
Turkey also suspended flights from Britain, the Netherlands, Denmark and South Africa, Iran halted flights to the UK and the Kuwait civil aviation authority added Britain to its list of high-risk countries meaning all flights from it are banned, the authority wrote on Twitter.
The WHO said it was in close contact with British officials, and that outside the UK nine cases of the new strain had been reported in Denmark, one in the Netherlands and one in Australia. “Across Europe, where transmission is intense and widespread, countries need to redouble their control and prevention approaches,” a spokeswoman for WHO Europe said.
Were it to continue into January, the travel disruption could exacerbate transport problems caused by Brexit as Britain leaves the EU’s single market, which guarantees movement within its borders.
Israel, too, imposed new measures on Sunday, barring entry to non-citizens arriving from the UK, Denmark and South Africa, citing fears about Covid variants. Israeli citizens arriving from those countries will have to enter isolation at state-run quarantine hotels for up to 14 days.
The hastily enacted decision led to confusing scenes at Israel’s international airport, where, according to domestic media, about 130 passengers on two flights from London were informed of the new quarantine requirements on arrival. Police were called to the scene after several people refused, Channel 12 news reported, and 12 decided to return to the UK.
Ellen Steel, a British–Israeli citizen on one of the flights, said she was ordered to board a crowded bus without being told where she was going. “At Luton, check-in was normal, but then they called boarding 1.5 hours early. At the gate, they turned everyone away [all non-Israelis] who had a British passport,” she told the Times of Israel.
“When we landed, someone from the health ministry came on [the plane] and announced we’d all have to go to hotels. If we wanted to have a fight about it, we could – but only at the hotel and not before,” she said. Police escorted the buses, she added.
The UK government announced emergency restrictions after Public Health England said it had identified more than 1,100 cases of a new variant of coronavirus that may be speeding up the spread of the virus, particularly in south-east England.
AFP and the Associated Press contributed to this report