A growing number of countries are closing their borders to travelers from the United Kingdom as a way to preemptively block the spread of a new strain of the coronavirus that is sweeping through southeast England.
U.K. officials warn the new variant of the virus could be as high as 70% more contagious than the various strains already circulating. However, there’s no evidence, so far, suggesting the new variant is more deadly.
This comes as the European Medicines Agency authorized the use of a COVID-19 vaccine jointly developed by BioNTech and Pfizer that, once approved by the European Commission, could begin to be distributed. The U.K. has already approved its use.
Several European nations, including Belgium, Bulgaria, France, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands, announced bans on travelers from the U.K. Canada also announced it was suspending flights from the U.K. for a 72-hour period, while Israel announced the entry of non-Israeli citizens from the U.K. has been prohibited “including those who have already been issued permits.”
The new restrictions on U.K. travel have crippled freight transport across the English Channel. Trucks loaded with cargo were backed up for miles trying to get into and out of Britain, while many travelers have been left stranded at U.K. airports.
NPR’s Frank Langfitt reporting from London explained the island nation’s predicament on NPR’s Morning Edition this way: “It feels much more isolated than it did just a few days ago here on the island of Great Britain.”
He also noted that the Brexit transition period, which ends Dec. 31, only complicates matters.
“The Eurotunnel, which also runs under the channel, is also closed. It seems to be a precautionary measure for about 48 hours,” Langfitt said. “There’s a lot of concern around the Christmas season. We’ve already seen backups at the Port of Dover 20 miles long. And what’s been happening is people are trying to get freight across the channel before the deadline of the Brexit transition period, which is going to end on New Year’s Eve.”
The Associated Press reports that Boris Johnson, the British prime minister, was scheduled to hold emergency talks with government officials over rising concerns the new travel restrictions could result in food shortages if they are not eased in the near future.
Some countries were hoping to ease some of the travel restrictions from the U.K. soon. Frances’s Minister Delegate for Transport Jean-Baptiste Djebbari said in a tweet it was his hope “a solid health protocol” could be established so movement could recommence.
“In the next few hours, at European level, we’re going to establish a solid health protocol to ensure that movement from the UK can resume. Our priority: to protect our nationals and our fellow citizens,” Djebbari said.
#COVID19: “In the next few hours, at European level, we’re going to establish a solid health protocol to ensure that movement from the UK can resume. Our priority: to protect our nationals and our fellow citizens,” – French Minister Delegate for Transport: https://t.co/Jz4fbKlfq1
— French Embassy UK (@FranceintheUK) December 21, 2020
The BBC, which reports nearly 40 nations have imposed some sort of restriction on the U.K., adds there’s also a push in Brussels, where the European Union is headquartered, for a more coordinated response to the new variant of the virus and how many of the nations respond to it.
The British broadcaster notes that when the coronavirus first began to spread earlier this year, a number of EU member states enacted an “every-country-for-itself” model, which it said put strains on the entire concept of European cooperation.
While EU nations consider how to respond to the latest crisis in the coronavirus pandemic, the British government placed many parts of the country into what is known as a “Tier 4” lockdown over the weekend.
“Given the early evidence we have on this new variant of the virus — the potential risk it poses — it is with a very heavy heart I must tell you we cannot continue with Christmas as planned,” Johnson said.
Under those restrictions, British officials urge those under Tier 4 should refrain from interacting with anyone outside their immediate household during the Christmas holiday.