Belgium suspends UK flights, trains over virus strain

Shoppers in Oxford street after the British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson delivered a televised statement announcing more restrictions for the south east, in London, Britain, 19 December 2020. [Facundo Arrizabalaga/EPA/EFE]

Belgium is suspending flight and train arrivals from Britain from midnight (2300 GMT) Sunday (20 December) after the UK detected a coronavirus variant suspected to be more infectious, a government official told AFP.

Prime Minister Alexander De Croo told Belgian television channel VRT the ban will be in place for at least 24 hours.

The abrupt decision came a day after British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a lockdown for London and parts of southeast England to at least 30 December.

He linked a surge in Covid-19 cases in those areas to the new strain of the coronavirus that he said could be up to 70% more infectious than the others seen so far.

Belgium’s travel suspension from the UK would affect flights and the Eurostar train service that runs from London.

It follows a similar ban declared by the Netherlands.

Germany, too, is considering barring flights from the UK and from South Africa, where the variant has also been detected, a health ministry source there told AFP.

The European Commission did not immediately respond to an AFP query as to whether such a prohibition on travellers from the United Kingdom would be recommended for all EU countries.

Such travel disruption, if it goes into January, could compound transport problems caused by Brexit, with Britain then leaving the EU’s single market, which guarantees movement within its borders.

London and southeast England may stay under tighter coronavirus curbs for some time, Britain’s health minister Matt Hancock suggested on Sunday.

Under fire for imposing an effective lockdown on more than 16 million people just days before Christmas, Hancock said Saturday’s decision was taken speedily after new evidence showed the new strain was responsible for spiralling COVID cases.

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.

Ministers say the new strain, which has been identified in Denmark, the Netherlands and Australia, is up to 70% more transmissible than the original but that there is no evidence that it is more lethal or causes more severe illness.

Soon after Johnson told the nation of the changes, 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”.

He also said the government acknowledged that the economic impact of the new measures would be “severe” after the Confederation of British Industry called them a “real kick in the teeth” for many businesses.

But speaking on the BBC, Hancock said a new national lockdown was “not necessarily” inevitable to stem the rise in cases.

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