Britain holds crisis meeting over virus travel ban

LONDON (AFP) – British Prime Minister Boris Johnson chaired a crisis meeting yesterday as a growing number of countries blocked flights from Britain over a new highly infectious coronavirus strain the United Kingdom (UK) said was “out of control”.

The World Health Organization (WHO) also called for stronger containment measures across Europe, which has passed 500,000 deaths from COVID-19.

But there was positive news across the Atlantic where United States (US) lawmakers reached a deal for a nearly USD900 billion COVID-19 financial package to help struggling Americans.

In London, Johnson called the COBR emergencies committee meeting to “discuss the situation regarding international travel, in particular the steady flow of freight into and out of the UK”, a spokesman said.

More than a dozen European nations have already banned flights and travellers from Britain, with more expected to take action.

Travellers wait for trains on the concourse at King’s Cross station in central London.

Health authorities in Britain’s former colonial territory Hong Kong said UK flights would be banned from today.

Crucial transit country France moved to block people and goods crossing the Channel, while the Netherlands said passengers arriving by ferry would be denied entry.

The ban on all but unaccompanied freight crossing to France comes as companies scramble to shift merchandise with days to go until Britain finally quits European Union (EU) trade structures in the wake of Brexit.

Late on Sunday, Britain’s critical south coast port at Dover said it was closing to all accompanied freight and passengers due to the French border restrictions “until further notice”.

Alarm bells were ringing across Europe as the new, even more infectious strain of the virus appeared to be raging in parts of Britain.

A WHO spokeswoman told AFP that “across Europe, where transmission is intense and widespread, countries need to redouble their control and prevention approaches”.

A German government source said restrictions on air travel from Britain could be adopted by the entire 27-member EU and that countries were also discussing a joint response over sea, road and rail links.

French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and EU chiefs Ursula von der Leyen and Charles Michel held a conference call on Sunday about the matter, Macron’s office said.

Later on Sunday, bans on flights from Britain were imposed in the Americas, including by Canada, Chile and Argentina.

US officials, however, signalled they were holding off on the move for now, while Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said he was confident existing 14-day quarantine rules for arrivals were sufficient to handle the threat.

Despite growing concerns about the new strain, EU experts believe it will not impact the effectiveness of existing vaccines, Germany’s Health Minister Jens Spahn said.

The assessment was shared by Britain’s chief medical officer Chris Whitty.

Johnson said the infectiousness of the new strain had forced him into locking down much of England over the holidays period.

“Unfortunately the new strain was out of control. We have got to get it under control,” Health Secretary Matt Hancock told Sky News.

Scientists first discovered the new variant – which they believe is 70 per cent more transmissible – in a patient in September. Public Health England notified the government on Friday when modelling revealed its full seriousness.

The novel coronavirus has killed more than 1.68 million people since the outbreak emerged in China last December, according to a tally from official sources compiled by AFP.

And with the onset of colder winter weather in the northern hemisphere – when respiratory diseases flourish – countries are bracing for new waves of COVID-19 with tighter restrictions, despite the economic damage such lockdowns wrought earlier this year.