Coronavirus: EU urges countries to lift UK travel bans

European Union ambassadors are meeting to try to co-ordinate their policies on links to the UK, after dozens of countries suspended travel amid alarm over a new coronavirus variant.

They will consider a recommendation from the European Commission to lift restrictions.

But EU member states are free to set their own rules on border controls and may continue with their own policies.

France and the UK are trying to reach a deal to end disruption in the Channel.

The new variant appears to be more transmissible, but there is no sign it is more deadly.

Almost all the EU’s 27 member states are now blocking travellers from the UK.

The EU’s executive branch, the European Commission, recommended its members allow people to travel to their country of residence providing they take a Covid-19 test or self-isolate. But it said non-essential travel should be discouraged.

It also said transport staff, such as lorry drivers, should be exempt from all travel restrictions and mandatory testing. 

EU ambassadors are considering adopting the rules but despite this countries are likely to continue with their own policies, the BBC’s Gavin Lee reports from Brussels.

Meanwhile, more than 1,500 lorries are stuck in Kent in south-east England as UK and French leaders try to reach an agreement on reopening the French border. Some countries, such as Spain, Portugal and Hungary, are only allowing their residents to return home. 

As the list of countries imposing travel restrictions on the UK grew, the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Europe director, Hans Kluge, said member states would convene to discuss strategies and limit travel, while maintaining trade. 

WHO emergencies chief Mike Ryan said new strains were a normal part of the evolution of a pandemic, and that it was not “out of control”, contradicting earlier remarks in the UK from Health Secretary Matt Hancock.

The co-founder of BioNTech, producer with Pfizer of the vaccine now being used in the UK, also voiced optimism. “Scientifically, it is highly likely that the immune response by this vaccine also can deal with the new virus variant,” Ugur Sahin said. He added that, if needed, a mutation-beating vaccine could be provided within six weeks.

What’s happening in Europe?

France imposed a ban on passengers and freight from the UK, causing disruption at the key southern British port of Dover.

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he was working with French President Emmanuel Macron to resume trade, and that he hoped the issue would be resolved “as soon as possible”.

French Transport Minister Clément Beaune said his country would announce what would replace the initial 48-hour ban on travellers and lorries on Tuesday.

Mr Beaune said proof of a negative Covid test for anyone arriving from the UK would be a certainty.

Lorry drivers spent a second night sleeping in their cabs outside Dover on the M20 motorway, which has been shut since Sunday night.

Andrew Opie of the British Retail Consortium told the BBC the lorries must get moving again from Wednesday to avoid supply disruption in the UK.

“There is a problem potentially directly after Christmas and that is really in fresh produce,” he said. “So we’re talking here about things like salad, vegetables, fresh fruit, of which the vast majority comes from Europe at this time.”

A French supermarket chain warned of potential seafood shortages. “We have trucks stuck on the other side of the border… with products that we are expecting for the holiday season: fish and seafood,” Dominique Schelcher, the head of supermarkets at Système U, told BFMTV. 

Meanwhile, Japanese car giant Toyota said it had suspended production in two factories in the UK and one in France. It blamed “shortages of parts due to transport delays and the uncertain nature of the duration of the border closures”.

Sweden banned foreign travellers from Denmark overnight into Tuesday after cases were discovered there. The decision alarmed Danes – especially those on the island of Bornholm, which relies on a fast ferry link with Ystad in Sweden. There are fears that many will struggle to get to or from Bornholm in time for Christmas, Danish media report.

There was some better news from the continent on Monday, with the EU’s medicines regulator approving the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, paving the way for jabs to be given as early as Sunday.

And in the rest of the world?

Many other countries, from India, to Iran, to Canada have suspended flights from the UK.

The US already has restrictions in place that prevent most non-US citizens who have been in the UK and some other countries for the last 14 days from entering. It is yet to follow suit with a ban on all travellers from the UK, but two airlines – British Airways and Delta – will only allow passengers who test negative for the coronavirus to fly to New York’s John F Kennedy airport.

Saudi ArabiaKuwait and Oman have shut their borders completely to international passengers.

Along with Denmark, the new strain has also been detected in Australia, Italy and the Netherlands.

The border crossing at Oresund bridge between Sweden and Denmark
image captionSweden has closed its borders to Danish arrivals

Some experts believe the new strain has already spread beyond where it has been reported, crediting the UK’s use of genomic surveillance for detecting it.

“I think we will find in the coming days that a lot of other countries will find it,” Marc Van Ranst, a virologist from the Rega Institute for Medical Research in Belgium, told broadcaster VRT.

In another development, travellers from South Africa are also facing bars from some countries after another new variant of the virus was discovered that is unrelated to the one found in the UK.

Covid: EU to discuss response to variant as travel bans on UK expand

European Union officials will discuss later a co-ordinated response to a new, more infectious coronavirus variant in the UK, which has led many countries to impose travel bans.

Germany, France and Italy are among those to suspend flights from the UK. Outbound train services through the Channel Tunnel have also been halted.

Canada is also blocking UK flights.

Health officials say the new variant is up to 70% more transmissible, but there is no evidence that it is more deadly.

There is also no evidence to suggest that it reacts differently to vaccines.

UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock said the new variant was “getting out of control” while Denmark, Italy and the Netherlands announced they had already detected it.

The European Council meeting of government representatives is expected to take place at 10:00 GMT. The speed at which governments have announced their bans on travellers from the UK shows the scale of the alarm, the BBC’s Gavin Lee in Brussels reports.

Also on Monday, the European Medicines Agency is expected to approve the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine that is already being administered in the UK and in the US under emergency approval.

Which European countries have acted and how?

The Netherlands said it would ban all passenger flights from the UK until 1 January “at the latest”. Ferry passengers arriving from the UK would also be barred although freight would continue.

France suspended all travel links, including freight lorries, with the UK for 48 hours from midnight on Sunday. Thousands of lorries move between the countries every day.

In response to France’s ban, Eurotunnel said it would suspend access to its Folkestone terminal for traffic heading to Calais. People booked to travel on Monday can get a refund. Trains will still run from Calais to Folkestone.

The ferry terminal at Dover is now closed for all accompanied traffic leaving the UK until further notice because of the French restrictions. UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson will chair a Cobra emergency response meetingto discuss the issue on Monday.

Empty lanes are seen at the Eurostar at St Pancras train station
image captionOutbound train services through the Channel Tunnel – including the Eurostar – have been halted

In Ireland, which has significant passenger traffic with the UK at this time of year, the government announced that flights arriving from Britain would be banned for 48 hours at least from midnight.

It also said that “in the interests of public health, people in Britain, regardless of nationality, should not travel to Ireland, by air or sea”. Ferry crossings for freight would continue.

In Germany, an order from the ministry of transport said planes from the UK would not be allowed to land after midnight on Sunday, although cargo would be an exception.

Belgium said it was halting flights and trains from the UK from midnight on Sunday for at least 24 hours as a “precautionary measure”.

Italy is blocking all flights from the UK until 6 January. Turkey has temporarily banned all flights from the UK as has Switzerland.

Austria is to ban flights from the UK. Bulgaria has suspended flights to and from the UK from midnight but, unlike the short-term measures in many other nations, its ban lasts until 31 January.

What is the situation elsewhere?

Canada has suspended entry of all passenger flights from the UK for 72 hours, effective from midnight (05:00 GMT). Passengers who arrived in Canada from the UK on Sunday would be “subject to secondary screening and enhanced measures, including increased scrutiny of quarantine plans,” it said. 

Other countries to announce restrictions on UK travel include IsraelIran, Croatia, Argentina, Chile, Morocco and Kuwait. 

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia has suspended all international flights for one week because of the pandemic.

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What do we know about the new variant?

Analysis box by James Gallagher, health and science correspondent

The new variant was first detected in September. In November it made up around a quarter of cases in London. This reached nearly two-thirds of cases in mid-December.

Three things are coming together that mean it is attracting attention:

  • It is rapidly replacing other versions of the virus
  • It has mutations that affect part of the virus likely to be important
  • Some of those mutations have already been shown in the lab to increase the ability of the virus to infect cells

All of these come together to build a case for a virus that can spread more easily. However, we do not have absolute certainty. New strains can become more common simply by being in the right place at the right time – such as London.

This variant is unusually highly mutated. The most likely explanation is it emerged in a patient with a weakened immune system that was unable to beat the virus.

There is no evidence yet to suggest the variant makes the infection more deadly, and at least for now the developed vaccines will almost certainly work against it.

However, if the virus changes so it dodges the full effect of the vaccine, then “vaccine escape” happens, and this may be the most concerning element.