Europe begins to shield itself from the new covid variant in the UK
The 27 EU states will meet urgently to try to agree on a coordinated response
London / BarcelonaEurope is looking with great concern at the new covid-19 variant identified in the United Kingdom and which, according to the British authorities, is 70% more contagious. After PM Boris Johnson increased restrictive measures and warned of the rapid transmission of the mutation on Saturday, some European governments have already begun to shield themselves on Sunday. The Netherlands, Italy, Germany, Belgium, Austria, Bulgaria and Luxembourg have all cut off air connections with the UK, and in some cases, also rail connections. Even Ireland has cut off connections. Other European Union Member States are considering this. And, again, uncertainty reigns.
As a result, the German presidency of the EU has called an emergency meeting on Monday morning where experts from each European state who are part of the response committee will participate by videoconference to try to coordinate the response to the outbreak of this new variant. A coordinated response that, among others, has already been requested by the governments of France, Germany and also Spain. Representatives of these three countries have contacted Brussels to achieve a joint reaction and thus avoid each country adopting its measures unilaterally. Pedro Sánchez's government has warned that, if this response is not fast, "it will act in defence of the interests and rights of Spanish citizens", as requested by the Catalan Minister of Health, Alba Vergés. However, for the moment it seems that on Sunday the EU will not manage to have a common response.
Meanwhile, the World Health Organization (WHO) has confirmed that it is in contact with the British authorities to share information on the new variant. According to the WHO, the new variant has also been located in Denmark - with 9 cases -, in Australia, and also in South Africa. The agency calls on European states to "strengthen controls". From London, however, it is insisted that there is no evidence that it causes a more serious disease or a higher mortality. The UK first knew of this variant in October, but the data belonged to samples collected during the month of September. However, it was only last Friday that this was confirmed to the Health Minister Matt Hancock. Initial tests suggest that the mutation is behind at least 62% of the new cases in London. British authorities have reported almost 36,000 infections in the last 24 hours, an all-time record since the pandemic began.
The first country to cut off communications with the British was the Netherlands. The Netherlands has banned air transport with the United Kingdom from 6 a.m. this morning until 1 January 2021. Mark Rutte's government move has been announced after the Dutch health authorities confirmed at least one case in the country of the same SARS-Cov-2 variant that would have caused the exponential growth of infections in London and south-east England in recent weeks. The Dutch health ministry has said that the case of the new variant was identified in early December and is being investigated.
Belgium has gone one step further: Brussels has suspended flights and trains to the British Isles. The measure comes into force as of midnight this Sunday. Meanwhile, Germany, after serious consideration, has also chosen to suspend flights from England and Northern Ireland.
In the case of Italy it was Foreign Minister Luigi di Maio who announced that all travel from the UK was suspended. "As a government, we have an obligation to protect Italians. That's why, after warning the British government, we are about to sign the order to cancel flights with the UK", Di Maio said in a Twitter message. Roberto Speranza, the Italian health minister, explained the government's decision: "I have spoken to scientists and health ministers in Europe, including the British one. We are suspending flights between the UK and Italy as a precaution. We have a new problem ahead of us. Our scientists need time to go deeper, to understand and to value the situation".
Israel, for its part, has also announced that it bans access to foreigners from British territory, a forceful step but with reduced impact, since it has banned the entry of tourists from abroad since the beginning of the pandemic. The measure does affect British or foreign nationals with residence permits who want to return to Israel after passing through the United Kingdom, and only diplomats are exempted. It has also cancelled connections with Denmark and South Africa.
More restrictions in London
The exponential spread of the new variant has led Boris Johnson's government to opt for total lockdown in all 32 districts of the British capital and the counties of Kent, Buckinghamshire, Berkshire, Surrey, Gosport, Havant, Portsmouth, Rother and Hastings, Bedfordshire, Hertfordshire, Essex and Peterborough. This Sunday, the British health minister justified the restrictions by saying that "unfortunately, the new variant is out of control. We had to get back in control and the only way to do that is to restrict contact".
For this reason, Johnson ordered on Saturday the closure of all non-essential services and the obligation to stay home, except to go to work when teleworking is not possible, for health emergencies, or to buy food. The measures, which were already even harder from the end of March to June, and then during November and until December 2, will be extended, for the time being, for two weeks. They affect between 18 and 20 million people. Christmas will be affected. And, as the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, stated on Saturday afternoon, the capital will experience the saddest holidays "since the Second World War".
Yesterday afternoon, internet forums and Facebook groups of Catalans living in the United Kingdom spread confusion about the possible ban on leaving the country by air, especially for all those living in the affected districts who already have their tickets bought and are about to return home for Christmas. In theory, the Johnson government has recommended that you should not travel abroad if you are in zone 4, but, at the moment, there is no explicit ban. A fact that once again highlights the same inconsistency that was experienced weeks ago in Catalonia, where it was possible to fly from Barcelona in London but not move from Barcelona to Tarragona, for example. In the same way, for the moment, one could fly to Barcelona but not go, for example, to Edinburgh or, much closer, to Cambridge or Oxford.
Train station chaos
Johnson's announcement, which limits mobility to a minimum, has in recent hours caused chaotic scenes in London's main train stations, with thousands of people trying to leave before midnight.
Passengers have been confronted with overcrowded carriages just minutes after UK Medical Director Chris said at the press conference with Premier Johnson that "people considering leaving the level 4 areas would now have to unpack and stay at home" - the opposite of what actually happened. The announcements over the loudspeakers at the stations warned travellers that social distancing "would not be possible" due to the enormous volume of passengers on board the trains