Travelers were facing a nightmare holiday season on Monday with governments banning flights from Britain to contain a fast-spreading variant of the coronavirus, as the European Union approves its first vaccine and readies a mass rollout.
More than two dozen countries from India to Argentina suspended flights from the UK, offering a bleak reminder that the pandemic is far from over.
“I’m basically just at their whim as to whichever restrictions they decide to impose. I could literally be trapped here,” said Shaun Thompson, a Briton who flew to spend time with his wife’s family in Poland, one of the countries to have banned UK flights.
The World Health Organization’s emergencies chief Michael Ryan tried to temper the alarm by stressing the situation was not “out of control,” shortly after a British minister used those exact words to describe the new spread of the new variant.
While experts say there is no evidence the UK variant of the virus – one of several mutations – is more lethal or will affect the impact of vaccines, it may be up to 70% more transmissible, according to early data.
Concern over the mutated strain sent European stocks, oil prices and the British pound plunging and transport changes unleashed chaos for travelers and truckers ahead of Christmas.
“It’s inhuman not to give people more notice. My boyfriend is out in Turkey, I want to get back to him,” said Beth Gabriel Ware, a 23-year-old Briton who recently came home to visit her parents – but is now among those stuck there longer than intended.
Thousands of people are still dying daily from the virus that has claimed at least 1.69 million lives since it first emerged in China late last year.
UK supply chains ‘robust’
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson held a crisis meeting after France announced a 48-hour blockade on both people and freight – just as companies are racing to shift merchandise before Britain finally quits EU trade structures on January 1.
Yet Johnson insisted that supply chains were “strong and robust,” with delays hitting only a “small percentage of food entering the UK.”
“Everyone can continue to shop,” he told a news conference.
The UK has already begun to roll out the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine and the EU will soon follow after formally approving the jab on Monday.
A rollout will begin across the bloc on December 27, EU chief Ursula von der Leyen said in a video statement.
EU regulators earlier noted there was no evidence to suggest the vaccine would not be effective against the new variant.
The United States, which last week began giving Pfizer-BioNTech shots, on Monday added the Moderna vaccine to its arsenal.
“I’m excited. I feel privileged,” said Mandy Delgado, a Connecticut nurse who was among the first to receive a shot.
The UK strain has also been detected in small numbers in Australia, Denmark and the Netherlands, according to the WHO.
Another variant with similar genetic mutations has been linked to widespread transmission in South Africa.
There is currently “no evidence to indicate any change in disease severity, but this is also under investigation,” WHO said.
In the pandemic’s first border closure among Scandinavian neighbors, Sweden barred travelers from neighboring Denmark, in addition to the UK, because of the variant.
Elsewhere, Luxembourg decided to join European neighbors who are tightening virus lockdowns after Christmas.
Yet Hungary and Slovenia said they would relax some rules around the holiday to allow families to gather.
While Russia, Spain, India and others joined the list of countries banning flights from the UK on Monday, Australia and the US have held off.
Americans, still suffering the world’s highest death tolls, were bracing for a bit of relief after lawmakers reached a deal Sunday on a nearly US$900 billion Covid-19 financial package.
The measure, which Congress is expected to approve on Monday, would include aid for vaccine distribution and logistics, extra jobless benefits of $300 per week and a new round of $600 stimulus checks.
“People are going to see this money by the beginning of the next week,” US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said.
Wall Street stocks nevertheless opened lower as worries over the UK’s virus strain dampened optimism on the stimulus bill.