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Countries across Europe halt flights from Britain over concerns about coronavirus mutation

After British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced new pandemic restrictions on Dec. 19, Londoners raced to shops and trains before the rules took effect. (Video: The Washington Post)

A wave of European countries — and some beyond the continent, including Canada — are restricting travel from the United Kingdom amid mounting fears about an infectious new strain of the novel coronavirus first detected in England.

Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands and Switzerland were among those that announced bans on Sunday, with others expected to follow. British officials have reported that a mutation of the virus appears to speed its transmission, and they have imposed severe restrictions on 18 million people in London and across southern England.

British Health Secretary Matt Hancock told the BBC Sunday that “the new variant is out of control.”

The new strain has now also been found in Australia, Denmark and the Netherlands, the BBC reported. Italy’s Health Ministry confirmed Sunday night that scientists had detected the U.K. mutation in a person who returned to Italy from Britain “in the last few days.” The ministry’s statement said that the person and close contacts were in isolation.

The European Union has scheduled a crisis meeting for Monday morning to discuss the mutation.

Germany will ban all air traffic from Britain on Sunday at midnight and review the ban on Dec. 31, the German Embassy in London announced. Irish Transport Minister Eamon Ryan said Ireland will impose 48-hour restrictions on flights and ferries from Britain starting at midnight and review the regulations Tuesday. “There is an exception for goods traffic and essential supply-chain workers,” he told Virgin Media News.

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Not so in France. France’s 48-hour travel ban, which was scheduled to start at the stroke of midnight Sunday, included nearly all shipments of freight as well — a stricter measure than was imposed during the first wave of travel restrictions in the spring and one that was sure to cause chaos in Britain as trucks destined for France get stuck on roads.

The ban is on all travel of people — “including those related to the transport of goods, by road, air, sea or rail from the United Kingdom,” the office of the French prime minister said in a statement. Only unaccompanied freight — truck trailers that are loaded onto ferries without drivers — will be allowed to continue to pass through.

The passage from Britain to France is one of the most important transport corridors in Europe, which means that food and other time-sensitive cargo may end up rotting on the side of British roads in the coming days. In a bit of dark irony, the transportation snarl is exactly what was predicted if Britain cuts its last ties with the E.U. on Dec. 31 without a trade deal in hand. That “no-deal” Brexit remains a risk — but the chaos may have come a few days early.

The French government said that French nationals in Britain hoping to come home for Christmas may still be able to do so once the ban is lifted and that they should get tested for the coronavirus so they can have a better chance of returning later this week.

The Netherlands was among the first to ban flights from Britain starting Sunday until at least the end of the year. Dutch health officials raised the alarm after they detected a coronavirus case with the same British strand. Belgium on Sunday also ordered a 24-hour ban on flights and trains to and from the U.K., beginning at midnight.

In Germany, a government spokeswoman confirmed Sunday evening that the country intends to “restrict travel options between Germany and Great Britain, as well as South Africa.”

French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and European Council President Charles Michel spoke Sunday to discuss “the latest development on [the] virus variant and the measures related to it,” according to an E.U. official.

Greece issued new rules requiring a seven-day quarantine for travelers from the U.K., rather than the current three-day period, starting Monday, the Associated Press reported. Bulgaria also announced a ban on U.K. travelers through the end of January, Reuters reported.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Dec. 19, "We cannot continue with Christmas as planned," due to findings on a new mutation of the novel coronavirus. (Video: Reuters)

The new mutation, or variant, has significantly faster transmission rates, though experts said it does not appear to be more deadly or vaccine resistant.

British officials identify coronavirus mutations, but significance remains unclear

“While it seems to be more easily transmissible, we do not have evidence yet that this is a more deadly virus to an individual who acquires it,” Vivek H. Murthy, the Biden administration’s nominee for U.S. surgeon general, told NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday. “There’s no reason to believe that the vaccines that have been developed will not be effective against this virus, as well.”

He added, “The bottom line is if you’re at home and you’re hearing this news, it does not change what we do in terms of precautions as individuals that can reduce the spread of this virus.”

Cases, meanwhile, have spiked in Britain. Public Health England on Sunday announced 35,928 new cases; last Sunday, the figure was 18,447. Health officials said that the sharp increase was of serious concern but that it was too early to know if it was linked to the new variant.

As cases mount, Britain on Saturday announced increased pandemic restrictions, reversing earlier hopes for a more relaxed holiday period.

The news has suddenly left travelers from the U.K. scrambling to return home as rules change fast. Eurostar train service is scheduled to be cut Monday between London, Brussels and Amsterdam. The Guardian reported that British airports were filled with travelers seeking last-minute flights out of the country. The two-day closure of the Eurotunnel, which connects Britain and Europe, could leave truck drivers stranded, Logistics UK, formerly the Freight Transport Association, warned in a tweet.

Countries outside Europe were also reacting fast. Canada announced Sunday that it would suspend flights from the U.K. for 72 hours, starting at midnight. Israel announced on Sunday afternoon a new ban on passengers from Britain, Denmark and South Africa, citing fears of the new strain.

In a Twitter post Sunday night, Turkish Health Minister Fahrettin Koca, noting the uptick in British infections because of the mutation, said Turkey was temporarily suspending flights to the U.K. Flights were also being suspended between Turkey and Denmark, the Netherlands and South Africa, he said, but it was not clear whether those suspensions were related to the new virus strain.

Saudi Arabia also announced a suspension of international flights for at least the coming week. Iran said it would halve flights from the U.K. for the next two weeks.

Chico Harlan in Rome, Rick Noack in Berlin, Karla Adam and William Booth in London, Michael Birnbaum in Riga, Latvia, and Quentin Ariès in Brussels contributed to this report.

Coronavirus: What you need to know

The latest: The CDC has loosened many of its recommendations for battling the coronavirus, a strategic shift that puts more of the onus on individuals, rather than on schools, businesses and other institutions, to limit viral spread.

Variants: BA.5 is the most recent omicron subvariant, and it’s quickly become the dominant strain in the U.S. Here’s what to know about it, and why vaccines may only offer limited protection.

Vaccines: Vaccines: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that everyone age 12 and older get an updated coronavirus booster shot designed to target both the original virus and the omicron variant circulating now. You’re eligible for the shot if it has been at least two months since your initial vaccine or your last booster. An initial vaccine series for children under 5, meanwhile, became available this summer. Here’s what to know about how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections and booster history.

Guidance: CDC guidelines have been confusing — if you get covid, here’s how to tell when you’re no longer contagious. We’ve also created a guide to help you decide when to keep wearing face coverings.

Where do things stand? See the latest coronavirus numbers in the U.S. and across the world. The omicron variant is behind much of the recent spread.

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