As thousands of Londoners were seen packing train stations ahead of tougher coronavirus restrictions in Britain, neighbouring countries are shutting the borders with the UK over rising fears of a new variant strain of Covid-19.
The rapidly spreading strain of coronavirus has caused cases to soar in Britain, prompting concerns about the potentially more infectious nature of the variant.
While the Europe Union has been reticent to place hard restrictions on cross border traffic during the pandemic, many nations have now moved to halt all traffic coming from the UK.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced on Saturday (local time) that the new virus strain had led to spiralling infection numbers with health officials suggesting it was up to 70 per cent more transmissible than earlier versions.
Europe shuts its doors
The World Health Organisation later called on European nations to introduce tougher measures in response.
France said it would bar all people coming from the United Kingdom for 48 hours from Sunday night, including freight carriers, whether by road, air, sea or rail.
Germany, Italy and the Netherlands ordered a suspension of flights from Britain, while Ireland said it would impose restrictions on flights and ferries from its neighbour.
A German news broadcaster reported the ban on flights would be in place at least until December 31, while the Netherlands ban will reportedly last at least until the end of the year.
Meanwhile Italy’s order bans plane travel from the UK until January 6.
Belgium said it would close its borders to flights and trains - including the popular Eurostar service - coming from the UK. Its ban will take effect for at least 24 hours from Sunday night.
Austria is also planning to ban flights from the UK, the APA news agency said, citing the country's health ministry.
Spain said that in response to the moves by some of its EU partners, it had asked the European Commission and the European Council for a coordinated community response to the situation.
Otherwise it would act unilaterally to defend its interests and citizens, the Madrid government said.
On Saturday, Britain reported 27,052 new Covid-19 cases on Saturday, taking the total over two million, and 534 more deaths, taking the official death toll to more than 67,000.
US looking 'very carefully' at new virus variant
US authorities are looking "very carefully" into the virus variant spreading in the United Kingdom, top health officials said Sunday (local time) while indicating that a ban on UK travel was not currently in the cards.
Moncef Slaoui, chief advisor to the government's Operation Warp Speed vaccine program, told CNN that US officials "don't know yet" if the variant is present in the country.
"We are, of course...looking very carefully into this,” he said.
Concern new strain could derail vaccine efforts
At the moment, Mr Slaoui said, no strain of the virus appears to be resistant to the vaccines available.
"This particular variant in the UK, I think, is very unlikely to have escaped the vaccine immunity," he said.
Ravindra Gupta, professor of clinical microbiology at the University of Cambridge agreed, but cautioned future mutations could diminish the efficacy of the current vaccine rollouts.
“It’s unlikely this variant will compromise the vaccine …. but as this continues to change and mutate in the community there may come a point where that does happen,” he told ABC’s RN Breakfast on Monday.
The virus has as many as 22 mutations but it’s unclear where this particular mutation has originated.
“It seems to have appeared from either an upsampled place or either it’s come through a particular individual that has developed many mutations due to ongoing selection pressure by the immune system,” Prof Gupta explained.
“It’s worrying because the virus contains mutations in parts of the virus that our immune system usually targets, so there is a fear that this could eventually compromise some of our therapies and vaccines, so that is where some of the fear is coming from.”
He said there was “a number of potential reasons why the variant is apparently spreading faster” but more needs to be known about the mutation.
Importantly, “the initial evidence is that there is no more severe cases due to the strain,” he added.
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