Flights from UK canceled as health minister says new coronavirus variant is 'out of control'

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(CNN) — A growing number of European countries on Sunday halted flights from the UK following the discovery of a new variant of COVID-19, said by officials to spread faster than others.

The new strain of coronavirus, which prompted the UK government to impose a Tier 4 lockdown in London and southeastern England and tighten restrictions for all of England over the festive period, is "out of control," Health Secretary Matt Hancock said on Sunday.

The United Kingdom on Sunday broke its daily coronavirus case record, recording 35,928 new cases.

In response, France will suspend travel both to and from the United Kingdom for 48 hours, due to the "new health risk," French Prime Minister Jean Castex announced on his official Twitter account on Sunday. The suspension begins at midnight local and includes "all means of transport," he adds.

Italy will also suspend flights to and from the United Kingdom, according to Foreign Affairs Minister Luigi Di Maio on Sunday, though he did not say when the ban would come into place, or for how long. The country will ban entry to anyone who has been in Britain in the past two weeks, Health Minister Roberto Speranza said on Facebook Sunday.

The Republic of Ireland is banning flights from Britain on Monday and Tuesday. "In the interests of Public Health, people in Britain, regardless of nationality, should not travel to Ireland, by air or by sea," the Irish government announced in a statement.

Meanwhile, Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo said that Belgium will block travelers from the UK for 24 hours on Monday as a "precautionary measure," though the ban could be extended if necessary.

"As a precautionary measure, we have decided to stop flights from the UK from midnight for a period of 24 hours, and just as importantly for our country, to do the same for the Eurostar (train) -- because that's actually the main way that people from the UK come into our country," he said, speaking to CNN affiliate VRT's Sunday morning news program "De Zevende Dag."

The Netherlands announced a longer ban on all passenger flights coming from the United Kingdom, starting from Sunday morning until the new year. The Dutch government said the same variant of the virus had been detected in the Netherlands in a sample from a case from early December, and that it is conducting further investigations to determine if there are any other related cases.

Latvia also said it would suspend travel to and from the UK from December 21 to January 1. "The decision was made to protect the public against the spread of Covid-19," Latvian Prime Minister Krišjānis Kariņš said on Twitter.

And the Czech Republic imposed a mandatory 10-day quarantine on anyone arriving from the UK starting Sunday in response to the new coronavirus strain identified there, the Foreign Ministry announced.

Hancock said the new variant, which can spread faster than other strains but is not more dangerous, had to be controlled.

"The only way you can do that is by restricting social contacts and essentially, especially in Tier 4 areas, everybody needs to behave as if they may well have the virus and that is the way that we can get it under control and keep people safe," he said Sunday.

Tough coronavirus restrictions

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Saturday broke the news that London and large parts of southern and eastern England, where cases are surging, would enter Tier 4 restrictions, similar to the lockdown seen in Spring -- just days after reiterating his pledge to relax rules over the Christmas period.

Johnson outlined that in Tier 4 areas under the toughest restrictions, there will be no possibility for household mixing over Christmas. In areas under lower alert levels in England, Scotland and Wales, mixing will now be permitted only on Christmas Day.

In a hastily called Saturday press conference, Johnson said that the strain of the virus appears to spread more easily, and may be up to 70% more transmissable than the earlier strain.

Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty said on Saturday that the new variant is responsible for 60% of infections in London, which have nearly doubled in the last week.

As with other new variants or strains of Covid-19, this one carries a genetic fingerprint that makes it easy to track, and it happens to be one that is now common. That does not mean the mutation has made it spread more easily, nor does it not necessarily mean this variation is more dangerous.

Multiple experts in the genetics and epidemiology of viruses are noting that this one could be just a "lucky" strain that's been amplified because of a superspreader event; it could be the mutation somehow makes it spread more easily without causing more serious illness; or it could just be by chance.

Still, the government's scientific advisory group for Covid-19 has also warned the new strain is a "real cause for concern," and called for urgent action. On Twitter, Jeremy Farrar said, "Research is ongoing to understand more, but acting urgently now is critical. There is no part of the UK & globally that should not be concerned. As in many countries, the situation is fragile."

The new variant of Covid-19 originates in southeast England and has been identified in Denmark, the Netherlands and in Australia, World Health Organization Covid-19 technical lead Maria Van Kerkhove said on Sunday.

"We understand that this variant has been identified also in Denmark, in the Netherlands and there was one case in Australia and it didn't spread further there," she said in an interview with the BBC.

Van Kerkhove said the new variant had been circulating in southeast England "since September," adding: "We understand that the virus does not cause more severe disease from the preliminary information that [the UK] shared with us, although again those studies are underway to look at hospitalized patients with this variant."

Londoners flee capital following new restrictions

When asked about the time-frame of the Tier 4 restrictions, which effectively put parts of the UK back into the lockdown seen in Spring, Hancock said Sunday: "Given how much faster this new variant spreads, it's going to be very difficult to keep it under control until we have the vaccine rolled out."

Hancock added what really mattered "is that people not only follow [the new Tier 4 measures], but everybody in a Tier 4 area act as if you have the virus to stop spreading it to other people. (...) We just know that this new variant, you can catch it more easily from a smaller amount of the virus being present."

"All of the different measures we have in place, we need more of them to control the spread of the new variant than we did to control the spread of the old variant," he added, in response to whether current measures to protect people, such as the use of masks and the 2-meter rule (6.5 feet), was enough to protect people from the new strain.

Still, Londoners piled on to trains and motorways on Saturday night as they rushed to leave the capital ahead of new restrictions announced by UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

By 7 p.m. on Saturday evening, there were no free seats on trains leaving London from several stations in the capital, PA Media reported. Passengers complained about not being able to socially distance themselves within the train carriages.

The scenes were condemned by politicians and public health experts. London Mayor Sadiq Khan called the introduction of the restrictions "devastating" in an interview with the BBC, adding that scenes at London train stations "was a direct consequence of the chaotic way the announcement was made, and the late stage it was made."

"I understand why people want to return to see their mums, dads, elderly relations, but I think it's wrong," he said.

Keir Starmer, leader of the opposition Labour Party, accused Johnson of "gross negligence" in failing to act earlier. Starmer said Labour supported the latest coronavirus restrictions, but criticized the PM for waiting until the "11th hour" to take a decision.

"It was blatantly obvious last week that the Prime Minister's plan for a free-for-all over Christmas was a risk too far," Starmer told an online press conference. "And yet, rather than listening to concerns and taking them seriously, the Prime Minister did what he always does: dismissed the challenge, ruffled his hair and made a flippant comment.

"We have known about rising infections and the NHS reaching capacity in many parts of the country for weeks. The alarms bells have been ringing for weeks, but the Prime Minister chose to ignore them," he said.

"It is an act of gross negligence by a Prime Minister who, once again, has been caught behind the curve," he said.