Covid-19 pandemic: UK isolated amid global alarm at new virus strain

Covid-19 pandemic: UK isolated amid global alarm at new virus strain

The UK is engaged in urgent talks to unblock its international isolation after more than 40 countries suspended travel links, alarmed by a new coronavirus variant in the UK.

EU member states will consider co-ordinating restrictions later, but so far they have responded individually.

Sweden banned foreign travellers from Denmark after cases of the variant were discovered there.

It appears to be more transmissible, but there is no sign it is more deadly.

Almost all the 27 EU member states are now blocking travellers from the UK. More than 1,500 lorries were stuck in Kent in south-east England as UK and French leaders tried to reach an agreement on reopening the French border from Wednesday.

Some countries, such as Spain, Portugal and Hungary, are only allowing their residents to return home.

Sweden’s travel ban has alarmed Danes – especially those on the island of Bornholm, which relies on a fast ferry link with Ystad in Sweden. There are fears that many will struggle to get to or from Bornholm in time for Christmas, Danish media report.

As the list of countries imposing travel restrictions on the UK grew, the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Europe director, Hans Kluge, said member states would convene to discuss strategies and limit travel, while maintaining trade. Earlier WHO emergencies chief Mike Ryan said new strains were a normal part of the evolution of a pandemic, and that it was not “out of control”, contradicting earlier remarks in the UK from Health Secretary Matt Hancock.

The co-founder of BioNTech, producer with Pfizer of the vaccine now being used in the UK, also voiced optimism. “Scientifically, it is highly likely that the immune response by this vaccine also can deal with the new virus variant,” Ugur Sahin said. He added that, if needed, a mutation-beating vaccine could be provided within six weeks.

In another development, travellers from South Africa are also facing bars from some countries after another new variant of the virus was discovered that is unrelated to the one found in the UK.

France imposed a ban on passengers and freight from the UK, causing disruption at the key southern British port of Dover.

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he was working with French President Emmanuel Macron to resume trade, and that he hoped the issue would be resolved “as soon as possible”.

The French Transport Minister Clément Beaune said his country would announce what would replace the initial 48-hour ban on travellers and lorries on Tuesday.

EU co-ordination talks are continuing in Brussels, and the European Commission is expected to make an announcement later today.

Despite those talks, countries are likely to continue with their own policies, the BBC’s Gavin Lee reports from Brussels.

Mr Beaune said proof of a negative Covid test for anyone arriving from the UK would be a certainty.

In Kent lorry drivers spent a second night sleeping in their cabs on the M20 motorway outside Dover, which has been shut since Sunday night.

Andrew Opie of the British Retail Consortium told the BBC that the lorries must get moving again from Wednesday to avoid supply disruption in the UK.

“There is a problem potentially directly after Christmas and that is really in fresh produce, so we’re talking here about things like salad, vegetables, fresh fruit, of which the vast majority comes from Europe at this time.”

There was some better news from the continent on Monday, with the EU’s medicines regulator approving the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, paving the way for jabs to be given as early as Sunday.

Many other countries, from India, to Iran, to Canada have suspended flights from the UK.

The US already has restrictions in place that prevent most non-US citizens who have been in the UK and some other countries for the last 14 days from entering. It is yet to follow suit with a ban on all travellers from the UK, but two airlines – British Airways and Delta – will only allow passengers who test negative for the coronavirus to fly to New York’s John F Kennedy airport.

Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Oman have shut their borders completely to international passengers.

Along with Denmark, the new strain has also been detected in Australia, Italy and the Netherlands.

The handful of cases found in Denmark prompted Sweden to ban arrivals from there, the first time it has imposed such restrictions on a neighbour.

“There is an obvious risk that Danes will be tempted to cross over to Sweden to shop for Christmas presents,” Home Affairs Minister Mikael Damberg said, according to the AFP news agency.

Some experts believe that the new strain has already spread beyond where it has been reported, crediting the UK’s use of genomic surveillance for detecting it.

“I think we will find in the coming days that a lot of other countries will find it,” Marc Van Ranst, a virologist from the Rega Institute for Medical Research in Belgium, told broadcaster VRT.

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