LONDON — The United Kingdom found itself increasingly cut adrift from the outside world Monday as countries took drastic action to stem a new mutant coronavirus strain from spreading worldwide.
Almost two dozen countries including Canada, France, Germany, Israel, Iran, Colombia and Morocco have suspended flights from the U.K. for 48 hours or more. Saudi Arabia has closed its borders and suspended all flights regardless of destination or origin.
Crisis meetings were scheduled in London and Brussels as officials grappled with how to respond to the variant, which experts estimate is 70 percent more transmissible than others in circulation.
At England’s main port of Dover, already gridlocked before this weekend as a symptom of the country’s imminent uncoupling with the European Union, freight officials warned that the new travel bans could wreak havoc on supply chains of food and goods days before Christmas.
France’s transport minister, Jean-Baptiste Djebbari, moved to address these concerns, tweeting that “in the coming hours” Europe would set up health control measures to allow traffic flows to resume.
Even so, there has already been chaos on highways, train stations and grocery stores. People have been packing on to trains to avoid new domestic restrictions announced by Prime Minister Boris Johnson, and stocking up on essentials in fear of possible shortages.
Though governments around the world are racing to prevent the spread of the recently identified Covid-19 strain, that already appears to have happened with it being detected in the Netherlands, Denmark Belgium and Iceland.
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The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control said in a briefing Monday that it appeared the new strain “was significantly more transmissible than previously circulating variants.” It is far from the first new variant of this coronavirus identified this year, and expert say that there is no evidence it is more deadly or that vaccines won’t work against it.
It’s not clear whether the virus mutated in the U.K. or was merely detected there first thanks to the country’s world class genomic analysis facilities. Scientists first warned the government about the new strain Friday, and by going over past tests say it has been circulating at least as early as September.
The United States is not among the countries to close their borders, with officials resisting calls to follow suit.
“Today that variant is getting on a plane and landing at JFK,” New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo told reporters Sunday, referring to New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport. “How many times in life do you have to make the same mistake before you learn?”
Under travel coronavirus bans imposed by President Donald Trump, most foreign nationals who have been to Europe in the past 14 days are prevented from entering the U.S. But this does not apply to U.S. citizens, legal residents or their family members under 21.
For the U.K. itself — already struggling with among the worst rates of Covid-19 deaths and the impending logistical chaos of Brexit — the closures have reduced it to a pariah state overnight.
On Saturday, Johnson performed his latest U-turn, telling tens of millions in southeast England to cancel Christmas plans days after he assured them they could go ahead.
Imposing a strict new lockdown on two thirds of the country, Johnson blamed the appearance of the new variant. But experts have been warning for a month that his plan to allow people to mix indoors for five days around Christmas would lead to more cases, hospitalizations and deaths.
The front page of left-wing British tabloid The Daily Mirror branded the U.K. the “Sick Man of Europe” — a label ascribed to various ailing countries since the mid-1800s.
Sir Keir Starmer, leader of the opposition Labour Party, also weighed in.
“The virus is now out of control: International flights have been banned, international borders have been shut and there’s now severe disruption at British ports,” he said in a video message. “Make no mistake, this is now a real emergency.”
Meanwhile many on Twitter were referring to the country as a “plague island” — which soon became a top trending phrase in the U.K.