Europe Moves to Isolate U.K. as Mutated Virus Ruins Christmas
The U.K. plunged into Christmas chaos with police blocking people from boarding packed trains, holidays abroad scrapped and travel with Europe banned after London went into an emergency lockdown.
France on Sunday suspended inbound travel from the U.K. for 48 hours and Germany halted arriving flights from Britain, which is in the middle of delicate Brexit negotiations with its European Union partners. Those talks are still at a critical stage after the weekend.
In a sudden turnaround, Prime Minister Boris Johnson canceled plans to allow families to see each other over the festive period as the government warned that a new strain of the coronavirus is “out of control.” There were scenes of panic at train stations, with people defying social-distancing rules to get out of the capital before the new rules took effect on Sunday.
Ireland banned flights with the British mainland at least until Tuesday. Italy, the Netherlands and Belgium halted air, train or ferry links earlier.
France’s Emmanuel Macron, Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel, European Council President Charles Michel and EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen discussed the health situation in the U.K. as well as Brexit.
For the U.K., it’s a double body blow, leaving the country potentially isolated with the pandemic still wreaking havoc. Its departure from the EU has been punctuated by a souring relationship with its neighbors, while this latest twist has its once-close partners putting up the shutters.
It will also unleash more damage to struggling European airlines. The country was the busiest in the region on Saturday with more than 2,200 flights, according to Eurocontrol.
More than 16 million Britons are now required to stay at home after new restrictions came into force in London and southeast England. The measures ban household mixing in the capital and the southeast, and restrict socializing to just Christmas Day across the rest of England.
For many Britons trying to see relatives or go on a winter vacation, the restrictions are a reminder of the last nationwide lockdown and will add to the burden of contending with a virus that is still dangerous, even with vaccines being rolled out into the population.
This is the latest U-turn from a government that has been reluctant to impose limits to movement, unless forced. Until Friday, Johnson was adamant that close households would be able to mix over Christmas. There is some unease among his Conservative rank-and-file lawmakers.
One Tory member of Parliament, Charles Walker, expressed dismay that the government had “pulled the plug” on Christmas in what is a clearly politically-sensitive time. U.K. Health Secretary Matt Hancock told Sky News presenter Sophy Ridge earlier this morning that the government had little choice because “this is deadly serious.”
While it is normal for viruses to mutate and several strains of the virus that causes Covid-19 have emerged, the one said to have triggered the tighter curbs on London may be as much as 70% more transmissable than others currently circulating, preliminary analysis in the U.K. shows.
The World Health Organization is working to understand the extent to which the virus may spread more easily, along with other human behavioral factors that may be driving transmission, Maria van Kerkhove, the body’s technical lead on Covid-19, told the BBC Sunday. She said that current information suggests that the new variant doesn’t have any impact on the vaccines being rolled out.
While London’s Heathrow airport was crowded Sunday morning as dozens of planes departed, an 11:45 a.m. KLM service to Amsterdam left empty, according to a spokeswoman for the hub. Two later British Airways flights to the Dutch city were canceled. Most other operations at the airport were shown to be on schedule.
France will suspend all travel from the U.K. from midnight for 48 hours while EU members coordinate on the matter, Junior Transportation Minister Jean-Baptiste Djebarri on LCI TV.
Germany is banning inbound flights from the U.K., Health Minister Jens Spahn told broadcaster ARD. The Transportation Ministry in Berlin cited an EU directive that could keep the suspension in place until Dec. 31.
The bans are very concerning, the Heathrow spokeswoman said. The airport just had one of its busiest weeks since the first U.K. lockdown as people caught flights in the buildup to Christmas, and there are large numbers still due to travel, she said.
A spokesman for Schiphol airport in Amsterdam said planes arriving from London on Sunday were essentially empty. Deutsche Lufthansa AG has canceled crew layovers in the U.K. and is weighing further actions.
Virgin Atlantic Airways Ltd. is reviewing its flight schedule in light of the Tier 4 restrictions. Customers on flights that are still scheduled will have the option to rebook, though like British Airways the airline is only offering cash refunds when it cancels a flight. EasyJet Plc said it’s operating its schedule back to the U.K.
Eurostar International Ltd., which operates passenger trains through the Channel Tunnel, will scrap services from London to Brussels Monday. Even before the new curbs, Eurostar had been operating a minimal service of one train a day in each direction on most routes to allow for emergency travel. Anyone leaving London faced quarantining on their return as well as possible restrictions at their destination.
In the meantime, cops are increasing patrols and focusing on popular spots in the capital.
“Officers across London will pay particular attention to those groups who have willfully ignored the rules, putting communities and lives at risk,” the Metropolitan Police said.
©2020 Bloomberg L.P.