Countries Restrict UK Flights on New Covid-19 Variant Concerns

 - December 21, 2020, 12:10 PM

Airlines scrambled to adjust their schedules after several countries imposed restrictions on flights from the UK after Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Saturday warned that a new, more contagious variant of the Covid-19 virus was discovered in parts of England, including London. The Netherlands was the first to react and promptly introduced a ban on flights carrying passengers from the UK, effective from 6 a.m. CET on Sunday, December 20. Aircraft carrying only their crew, medical flights in the interest of public health, and cargo flights are exempt. This ban will remain in place until January 1 at the latest, the Dutch government said in a statement.

Other EU countries—including Germany, Italy, Latvia, and Ireland—were quick to follow suit and impose their own restrictions on travel from the UK, prompting the German presidency of the Council of the EU to call an urgent meeting on Monday for member states to discuss a coordinated approach on the response to the newly identified coronavirus variant in the UK. A decision on common EU-wide measures could be announced on Tuesday.

Eurocontrol’s network operations portal at press time listed 19 Notams detailing the various restrictions issued by authorities. Italy’s Notam, for instance, is suspending passenger flights arriving from the UK and Northern Ireland until January 6, while France decided to prohibit “any movement for any person coming from the United Kingdom to the whole of the French territory” for at least 48 hours. “This relates to both public transport and private flights,” the Notam read. The temporary travel ban will give time to agree a harmonized European sanitary protocol, asserted French Transport Minister Jean-Baptiste Djebbari. Belgium on Monday extended its initial 24-hour ban on passengers arriving from the UK by another 24 hours.

Authorities in several non-European countries—including Canada, Hong Kong, India, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Russia, and Turkey—also decided to halt commercial passenger flights from and to the UK in an effort to stop the spread of the newly-discovered coronavirus variant.

In the U.S., New York Governor Andrew Cuomo urged the federal government to take “swift action”—impose Covid-19 testing of all UK arrivals or institute a travel ban—to prevent the new strain from entering the country. “Today that variant is getting on a plane and landing in JFK, and all it takes is one person,” Cuomo said during a teleconference, according to WABC. “We have about six flights a day coming in [John F. Kennedy Airport] from the UK and we have done absolutely nothing.”  

Meanwhile, in the UK Johnson is due to chair a meeting of the government's emergency committee later on Monday to discuss international travel, in particular the flow of freight in and out of Britain.

The disruption in travel between the UK and the EU comes as the two sides are still locked in difficult talks on a post-Brexit trade deal. The UK left the bloc on January 31 but still is following EU rules. This, however, will stop on December 31, when the UK will exit the EU's internal market and customs union. The European Commission earlier this month proposed a set of temporary contingency measures on aviation safety and air connectivity to ensure flights can continue through June 30, 2021, though UK operators will lose their right to operate flights between EU airports.