PM to chair COBRA meeting as UK is cut off from continent

Video report by ITV News Political Correspondent Paul Brand

Boris Johnson will chair a meeting of the government’s Cobra civil contingencies committee on Monday after a series of countries announced they were stopping flights from the UK.

Ireland and France have become the latest in a growing list of European countries to ban travel from the UK in an attempt to curb the spread of the new variant of Covid-19.

The Eurotunnel will close completely from 10pm on Sunday, while ferries will still be able to operate for freight to Ireland.

They join Italy, Belgium, Austria, Germany, and the Netherlands in banning visitors from the UK.

A No 10 spokesperson said: “The Prime Minister will chair a COBR meeting tomorrow to discuss the situation regarding international travel, in particular the steady flow of freight into and out of the UK.

"Further meetings are happening this evening and tomorrow morning to ensure robust plans are in place.”

Ireland's transport minister, Eamon Ryan, said of their decision: “We have to do this because the UK government themselves has put in place very strict restrictions on movements. “This new strain of coronavirus, which they have identified, seems to have a much higher transmission rate. “On a precautionary basis it’s right for us to follow up on the Dutch, Belgium, Italian and other governments will do the same. “Any passengers who are in transit will have to set up mechanism to repatriate them in a safe way, but general travel between here and Britain is going to be restricted and we are going to review that at Cabinet to see if there will be any further changes.”

ITV News' Science Editor Tom Clarke on the new Covid-19 variant

French transport minister Jean-Baptiste Djebbari tweeted that the country was suspending all traffic from the UK from midnight for at least 48 hours.

The Eurotunnel will also close completely for 48 hours.

The Netherlands' ban came into effect on Sunday morning and will last until at least the end of the year, after the government there said it was reacting to tougher measures imposed in London and surrounding areas on Saturday by 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”.

After flights were cancelled earlier on Sunday for at least 24 hours, Eurostar trains between Belgium and the UK have been cancelled from Monday, following the Belgian government’s announcement that borders with the UK will close at midnight.

Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo said on Sunday that said he was issuing the flight ban for 24 hours starting at midnight “out of precaution.” “There are a great many questions about this new mutation and if it is not already on the mainland,” he said. He added he hoped to have more clarity by Tuesday.

No trains will run between London, Brussels and Amsterdam.

The German embassy in London tweeted: “As of midnight tonight (Berlin time), all flights from the UK to Germany are prohibited due to the coronavirus mutation.”

Shortly after the Belgian announcement, Italy's foreign minister announced a suspension of flights to and from the UK.

Austria has also announced a halt on flights from the UK but not yet given a timing of when this will come into effect.

The Czech Republic, meanwhile, imposed stricter quarantine measures from people arriving from the UK.

(PA Graphics) Credit: PA Graphics

Mr 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.

In a bid to contain the spread of the new variant, the south-east of England has been put under tough new Tier 4 restrictions which ban people from mixing indoors and outdoors with others, while retail, leisure and hospitality businesses must all close.

“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.

Explained: What are the new Covid-19 restrictions and which areas are in Tier 4?

Britain has alerted the World Health Organization (WHO) 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.

The new strain of coronavirus was first identified in south-east England in September and has been circulating in the area since, a WHO official told the BBC on Sunday. “What we understand is that it does have increased transmissibility, in terms of its ability to spread,” said Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO’s technical lead on Covid-19. Studies are under way to better understand how fast it spreads and and whether “it’s related to the variant itself, or a combination of factors with behavior,” she said.