Several European nations banning flights from the U.K., fearing virus variant

BERLIN (AP) -- Several European Union nations on Sunday banned flights from the U.K. and Germany was considering limiting such flights to make sure that a new strain of coronavirus sweeping across southern England does not establish a strong foothold on the continent.

The Netherlands banned flights from the U.K. for at least the rest of the year while Belgium issued a flight ban for 24 hours starting at midnight and also halted train links to Britain, including the Eurostar. Austria and Italy said they would halt flights from the U.K. but did not give details on any timing of the ban.

Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio said on Twitter that the government was preparing the measure "to protect Italians" from the new coronavirus variant. About two dozen flights were scheduled to arrive in Italy on Sunday, most in the northern region of Lombardy but also in Veneto and Lazio, which include Venice and Rome respectively.

German officials, meanwhile, were considering "serious options" regarding incoming flights from the U.K., but have not yet taken action.

The Czech Republic, meanwhile, imposed stricter quarantine measures from people arriving from the U.K.

The EU governments say they are acting in response to tougher measures imposed Saturday in London and its surrounding areas by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. He immediately put those regions into a new Tier 4 level of restrictions, saying that a fast-moving new variant of the virus that is 70% more transmissible than existing strains appears to be driving the rapid spread of new infections in London and southern England. 

Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo said Sunday said he was issuing the flight ban for 24 hours starting at midnight "out of precaution." 

"There are a great many questions about this new mutation and if it is not already on the mainland," he said. He hoped to have more clarity by Tuesday. 

The World Health Organization tweeted late Saturday that "We're in close contact with U.K. officials on the new (hash)COVID19 virus variant." It promised to update governments and the public as more is learned about this variant.

The new strain of coronavirus was identified in southeastern England in September and has been circulating in the area since a WHO official told the BBC on Sunday. 

"What we understand is that it does have increased transmissibility, in terms of its ability to spread," said Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO's technical lead on COVID-19.

Studies are underway to better understand how fast it spreads and whether "it's related to the variant itself, or a combination of factors with behavior," she said.

She said the strain had also been identified in Denmark, the Netherlands, and Australia, where there was one case that did not spread further. 

 "So we really need to do everything we can right now to prevent spread, and minimizing that spread will reduce the chances of it changing," she said.                                 

Susan Hopkins of Public Health England said that while the variant has been circulating since September, it wasn't until this week that officials felt they had enough evidence to declare that it has higher transmissibility than other circulating viruses. The strain has spread to other parts of the U.K. but in smaller amounts than in London and surrounding areas, she told the BBC.

Germany has not yet spelled out a ban but is considering limiting or halting flights from the U.K. as well, the DPA news agency reported Sunday. A high-ranking German official says that restrictions on flights from Britain are a "serious option."

Europe has been walloped this fall by soaring new infections and deaths due to a resurgence of the virus, and many nations have reimposed a series of restrictions to reign in their outbreaks.

Britain has seen over 67,000 deaths in the pandemic, the second-highest confirmed toll in Europe after Italy. 

Johnson on Saturday closed all non-essential shops, hairdressers, gyms and pools and told Britons to reorganize their holiday plans. No mixing of households is now allowed indoors in Tier 4 areas, including London, and only essential travel is permitted into and out of such areas. In the rest of England, people will be allowed to meet in Christmas bubbles for just one day instead of the five that were planned.

Also Saturday, video emerged showing crowds of people rushing to London train stations, apparently making a dash for places in the U.K. with less stringent coronavirus restrictions before the new rules came into effect. Health Secretary Matt Hancock said, "those scenes were totally irresponsible."

"We in the government of course have a responsibility, but so does every single person," he said. "The plea that I have is that people will play their part. Because it is only by acting -- all of us -- that we can get this under control."