Several European Union countries were stopping flights from Britain, where a quickly spreading variant of the coronavirus has alarmed officials and sent London and south-eastern England into lockdown.

The Netherlands was the first on Sunday to announce an immediate ban on flights, with similar advisories quickly following from Belgium, Austria and Italy.

In Germany, a government spokesperson said plans were being drawn to restrict travel with Britain but offered no details.

The new strain is “out of control,” British Health Secretary Matt Hancock told BBC News on Sunday.

The recently discovered variant is up to 70 per cent more contagious than the previously known form, but there was no evidence it was more deadly, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said.

Experts were in widespread agreement that vaccines would be effective against the variant.

“I don’t see any reason for alarm at the moment,” said Richard Neher from the Biozentrum of the University of Basel. Andreas Bergthaler from the Austrian Academy of Sciences in Vienna does not consider the current development to be “incredibly alarming” either, noting it is not uncommon for mutations to appear among pathogens.

To tamp down the spread, Britain announced a new lockdown for London and parts of south and eastern England starting Sunday and over the Christmas period. The measures affect 16 million people.

With some exceptions, in the hardest-hit areas, households are not allowed to mix, it is forbidden to stay overnight away from home and all non-essential shops are closed.

French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke with top European Union leaders by phone on Sunday to iron out a joint approach.

Macron and Merkel discussed the situation with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and European Council President Charles Michel, according to Elysee Palace circles.

Macron has also convened a meeting of the defence council for Sunday evening.

The European Commission is in contact with the member states to increase the flow of information and to help with coordination, a source in the EU executive branch told dpa.

But the alarm sounded by Britain late Saturday prompted countries in the European Union to take their own actions on Sunday, ordering travel restrictions to prevent the variant from getting a grip.

The Dutch flight ban is set to last until January 1, while Belgium’s suspension affects all flights and trains – including the important Eurostar route – and kicks in at midnight (2300 GMT).

Italy’s foreign minister said on Facebook that an order would be signed soon to suspend air travel.

Austria wants to impose a landing ban on flights from Britain, but details are still being worked out, the Health Ministry told the Austrian news agency APA.

The ministry said instances of the mutation have yet to be recorded in Austria.

The Dutch public health institute RIVM said a virus with the variant described in Britain had already been identified in a random sample in the Netherlands in early December.

The case was to be investigated further to determine who was affected, how the infection occurred and whether related cases were known.

Germany also plans on restricting travel with South Africa, where the new variant is also spreading.

Virologist Christian Drosten, who has become a household name in Germany for his role as a government Covid-19 adviser, said the strain had yet to be seen in Germany.

Norway meanwhile urged travellers arriving from Britain to abide by quarantine rules to prevent the spread of the new strain.

The new variant has so far not been detected in Norway.

Source: dpa/MIA