The Netherlands is banning flights from the U.K. for at least the rest of the year in an attempt to make sure that a new strain of coronavirus that is sweeping across southern England does not reach its shores.
The ban came into effect Sunday morning and the government said it was reacting to tougher measures imposed in London and surrounding areas on Saturday by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. The Netherlands said it will assess “with other European Union nations the possibilities to contain the import of the virus from the United Kingdom.”
Johnson said 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.
“There’s no evidence to suggest it is more lethal or causes more severe illness,” the prime minister stressed, or that vaccines will be less effective against it.
The Dutch government is already strongly advising its citizens not to travel unless absolutely necessary.
Britain has alerted the World Health Organization that the new variant identified this week appears to be accelerating the spread of COVID-19, saying it accounted for some 60% of the capital’s cases.
Viruses mutate regularly, and scientists have found thousands different of mutations among samples of the virus causing COVID-19. But many of these changes have no effect on how easily the virus spreads or how severe symptoms are.
London and southeast England may stay under tighter coronavirus curbs for some time, Britain’s health minister suggested on Sunday, adding that dropping plans to ease restrictions for Christmas was needed to stem a fast-spreading new strain.
The government faced criticism for imposing an effective lockdown on more than 16 million people just days before Christmas, but Matt Hancock said Saturday’s decision was taken speedily after new evidence showed the new strain was responsible for spiralling COVID-19 cases.
The new strain, which officials say is up to 70% more transmissible than the original, also prompted several European countries to place travel restrictions to and from Britain.
On Saturday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson abruptly tore up plans to allow three households to mix indoors for five days over the festive period, and imposed new Tier 4 level curbs – similar to a national lockdown in March – on London and southeast England.
Hancock suggested the tougher measures – which require about a third of the population of England to stay at home except for essential reasons such as work – might stay in place until vaccinations become more widely available.
“We’ve got a long way to go to sort this,” Hancock told Sky News. “Essentially we’ve got to get that vaccine rolled out to keep people safe. 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.”
Keir Starmer, leader of the opposition Labour Party, told a news conference that while he supported the new measures, “yet again the prime minister waited until the 11th hour to take this decision.
“The alarm bells have been ringing for weeks but the prime minister chose to ignore them … He told the country to go ahead and have a merry little Christmas … and yet three days later he tells millions of families to rip up those plans,” he said, referring to comments Johnson made on Wednesday.
Soon after Johnson announced the changes on Saturday afternoon, some in London headed for the capital’s train stations to try to travel to see relatives over Christmas, and there were scenes of crowding – something Hancock called “totally irresponsible”.
The new rules came into force on Sunday. Transport minister Grant Shapps called on people under the new restrictions not to travel. More British Transport Police officers were being deployed to ensure that “only those who need to take essential journeys can travel safely”, he said in a statement.
The UK’s other nations, whose response to the pandemic differs from that of England, also took action. Scotland imposed a ban on travel to the rest of the United Kingdom, effectively closing the border, and the Christmas easing will be limited to Dec. 25 only.
All of Wales will go into Tier 4 from midnight, but two households can mix on Christmas Day. Several European countries, including Belgium, Italy and the Netherlands, said they were taking measures to prevent people arriving from Britain. These included bans on flights and trains.
With non-essential retail stores, as well as places like gyms and hair salons, ordered closed in the Tier 4 areas some businesses called the new measures a “real kick in the teeth”.
Hancock said the government recognised that the economic impact of the new measures would be “severe” but that it had to weigh that against the health consequences.
Like other countries in Europe, Britain is battling to contain new waves of the virus. It reported 27,052 new COVID-19 cases on Saturday, taking the total over 2 million, and 534 more deaths, taking the overall official toll to more than 67,000.
It began rolling out inoculations using the vaccine developed by Pfizer and BioNTech earlier this month.—AP