UK in crisis over virus travel bans as US nears stimulus deal
Britain's government said on Dec. 20 it would hold a crisis meeting after countries worldwide banned arrivals from the U.K. over a new highly infectious coronavirus strain it said was "out of control", as the WHO called for stronger containment measures.
Across the Atlantic there were hints a new round of government support could soon reach struggling Americans, with Washington lawmakers closing in on a deal for a $900 million spending package.
U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson was to chair the COBR emergencies committee on Dec. 21, his office said, after a slew of nations from Sweden to Turkey blocked arrivals from Britain by air.
Crucial transit country France moved to block people and goods crossing the Channel, while the Netherlands said passengers arriving by ferry would be denied entry.
COBR would "discuss the situation regarding international travel, in particular the steady flow of freight into and out of the U.K.," a Downing Street spokesman added.
The ban on all but unaccompanied freight travelling crossing to France comes as companies scramble to shift merchandise with days to go until Britain finally quits European Union trade structures in the wake of Brexit.
Late on Dec. 20, Britain's critical south coast port at Dover said it was closing to all accompanied freight and passengers due to the French border restrictions "until further notice".
"I'm lucky I managed to board at Dover to get here before midnight!" Italian student Pesante told AFP as she arrived at the French port of Calais.
Alarm bells were ringing across Europe -which last week became the first region in the world to pass 500,000 deaths from COVID-19 since the pandemic broke out a year ago -as the new, even more infectious strain of the virus appeared to be raging in parts of Britain.
A WHO spokeswoman told AFP that "across Europe, where transmission is intense and widespread, countries need to redouble their control and prevention approaches."
A German government source said restrictions on air travel from Britain could be adopted by the entire 27-member EU and that countries were also discussing a joint response over sea, road and rail links.
French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and EU chiefs Ursula von der Leyen and Charles Michel held a conference call on Dec. 20 about the matter, Macron's office said.
Despite growing concerns about the new strain, EU experts believe it will not impact the effectiveness of existing vaccines, Germany's health minister Jens Spahn said.
The assessment was shared by Britain's chief medical officer Chris Whitty.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the infectiousness of the new strain had forced him into locking down much of England over the Christmas period.
"Unfortunately the new strain was out of control. We have got to get it under control," U.K. Health Secretary Matt Hancock told Sky News after Johnson abandoned plans to ease containment measures over the festive season.
Scientists first discovered the new variant -which they believe is 70 percent more transmissible -in a patient in September. And Public Health England notified the government on Friday when modelling revealed the full seriousness of the new strain.
The novel coronavirus has killed at least 1,685,785 people since the outbreak emerged in China last December, according to a tally from official sources compiled by AFP at 1100 GMT on Dec. 20.
And with the onset of colder winter weather in the northern hemisphere where respiratory diseases flourish, countries are bracing for new waves of COVID-19 with tighter restrictions, despite the economic damage such lockdowns wrought earlier this year.
The Netherlands is under a five-week lockdown until mid-January with schools and all non-essential shops closed to slow a surge in the virus.
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 non-essential shops, bars and restaurants and curbs on regional travel. 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.
In the U.S., Senator Mitt Romney told CNN that lawmakers were close to agreement on a $900 billion COVID-19 relief package for millions of Americans, after Democrats and Republicans reached a compromise on the future spending powers of the Federal Reserve.
"I believe there is going to be a deal" on Dec. 20, Romney told CNN.
"There are always sticking points, but the big one was resolved last night very late" with the agreement on the central bank, he said.
Around the world, the rapid rollout of vaccinations is now seen as the only effective way to end the crisis and the economically devastating shutdowns 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 jabs with an approved Pfizer-BioNTech shot, one of several leading candidates.
Russia and China have also started giving out jabs with their own domestically produced vaccines.
Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he would receive the vaccine publicly when his age group's turn comes.
And Algeria's President Abdelmajid Tebboune said the country would launch vaccinations in January -although the North African nation has yet to pick which of the shots on offer it will deploy.