Britain warns new strain out of control as European nations start to ban flights

UK health minister says situation with new coronavirus variant is ‘deadly serious’; Netherlands, Belgium stop air travel from Britain, as Germany considers making same move

Passengers arrive at Heathrow Airport, September 8, 2020 (Yui Mok/PA via AP)
Passengers arrive at Heathrow Airport, September 8, 2020 (Yui Mok/PA via AP)

LONDON — European countries started banning flights coming from the UK on Sunday as government in London warned that a potent new strain of the virus was “out of control.”

Following the example of the Netherlands, where a ban on all UK passenger flights came into effect on Sunday, a German government source said Berlin, too, was considering a similar move as “a serious option” for flights from both Britain and South Africa.

The Dutch ban came into effect from 6:00 a.m. (0500 GMT) and will last until January 1. And neighboring Belgium also said it was suspending flight and train arrivals from Britain from midnight.

The moves come as around a third of England’s population entered a Christmas lockdown and UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock warned that the new strain of virus was “out of control.”

Britain’s Health Secretary Matt Hancock hosts a remote press conference to update the nation on the COVID-19 pandemic, inside 10 Downing Street in central London on December 14, 2020. (Tolga Akmen/POOL/AFP)

Prime Minister Boris Johnson had said the previous day that millions of Britons would have to cancel their Christmas plans and stay home because the new strain was spreading far more quickly.

Speaking on Sky News, Hancock said the situation was “deadly serious.”

“It’s going to be very difficult to keep it under control until we have the vaccine rolled out,” he said.

It seems that scientists first discovered the new variant in a patient in September.

Susan Hopkins of Public Health England told Sky News that the agency notified the government on Friday when modeling revealed the full seriousness of the new strain.

She confirmed a figure given by Johnson that the new virus strain could be 70 percent more transmissible.

A man wears a face mask while he walks and is reflected into a puddle in Regent Street, ahead of the new Tier-4 restriction measures, in London, Dec. 19, 2020 (AP Photo/Alberto Pezzali)

Last week, Europe became the first region in the world to pass 500,000 deaths from COVID-19 since the pandemic broke out a year ago, killing more than 1.6 million people worldwide and pitching the global economy into turmoil. Countries are shutting down their economies again in a bid to rein in the virus.

The Netherlands is under a five-week lockdown until mid-January with schools and all nonessential shops closed to slow a surge in the virus.

In this Dec. 18, 2020, file photo, A traveler wearing a face mask checks the flight departures at Schiphol Airport, near Amsterdam, Netherlands (AP Photo/Peter Dejong, FILE)

Italy also announced a new regime of restrictions until January 6 that included limits on people leaving their homes more than once a day, closing nonessential shops, bars and restaurants and curbs on regional travel.

More than 50,000 deaths in Russia

In Russia, health authorities said that the number of people who have died from the coronavirus has surpassed the 50,000 mark and now stands at 50,858.

But some experts believe that the real number could be much higher, with one former demographer at Russia’s state statistics agency, Alexei Raksha, putting it as high as 250,000.

Raksha, who left Rosstat in July, told AFP that the Russian health ministry and the consumer health agency “downplay and falsify” the statistics.

Russian law enforcement officers wearing face masks partol in downtown Moscow on December 17, 2020, amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. (Yuri KADOBNOV / AFP)

A year after the pandemic first emerged in the Chinese city of Wuhan, the rapid rollout of vaccinations is now seen as the only effective way to end the crisis and the economically devastating lockdowns used to halt its spread.

Europe is expected to start a massive vaccination campaign after Christmas following the United States and Britain, which have begun giving an approved Pfizer-BioNTech shot, one of several leading candidates.

Russia and China have also started giving out shots with their own domestically produced vaccines.

The United States on Friday authorized Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine for emergency use, paving the way for millions of doses of a second inoculation to be shipped across the hardest-hit country in the world.

It is the first nation to authorize the two-dose regimen from Moderna, now the second vaccine to be deployed in a Western country after the one developed by Pfizer and BioNTech.

A nurse gives a volunteer an injection during trials for Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine in Binghamton, New York, July 27, 2020. (AP Photo/Hans Pennink)

The head of Asia’s largest drugmaker Takeda said that pharmaceutical firms must be “very transparent” about the risks and benefits of vaccines.

“We have to manage the situation well, be very transparent and extremely educative in the way we introduce products,” Takeda chief executive Christophe Weber told AFP in an interview.

Takeda, one of the world’s biggest pharmaceutical companies, is not developing its own vaccine but has contracts with several firms to distribute their shots in Japan and is also testing a virus treatment.

“Medicines or vaccines are never perfect… there are always some side effects,” Weber said.

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