New variant makes Covid-19 ‘out of control’ in UK, flights banned

The Netherlands, Italy and Belgium have banned flights to and from the UK to prevent the new Covid-19 variant from entering the countries, as reports said other European countries were considering similar measures
Pedestrians walk past a British government health information advertisement highlighting new restrictions amid the spread of the coronavirus disease, in London, Britain, on December 19, 2020.(REUTERS)
Pedestrians walk past a British government health information advertisement highlighting new restrictions amid the spread of the coronavirus disease, in London, Britain, on December 19, 2020.(REUTERS)
Updated on Dec 20, 2020 11:29 PM IST
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Hindustan Times, London | ByPrasun Sonwalkar

Britain’s health secretary Matt Hancock on Sunday admitted that the coronavirus is out of control, hours after UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson imposed a lockdown on London and southeast England, sparking fury by cancelling Christmas at short notice and some countries imposing flight bans.

The Netherlands, Italy and Belgium have banned flights to and from the UK to prevent the new Covid-19 variant from entering the countries, as reports said other European countries were considering similar measures. The Eurostar from Belgium was also subject to restrictions.

Scotland banned travellers from England, while Wales went into another lockdown as health officials tried to grapple with the new variant of the Covid-19 virus that is assessed to be up to 70% faster in transmission than the earlier strain - most evident in recent days in Kent.

Asked on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show whether the coronavirus is under control, Hancock said, “No, sadly”, adding that the situation now is “incredibly difficult”. The best gift that people could give for Christmas is to stay at home and not spread the virus, he said.

Also Read: Unclear If US has UK Covid-19 mutation, says chief scientific adviser Slaoui

Labour Party leader Keir Starmer said his party supported the latest restrictions, but he accused PM Johnson of “gross negligence” in failing to act earlier, adding that “alarm bells have been ringing for weeks but the prime minister chose to ignore” it.

Hancock said it was on Friday that scientists showed ministers evidence of the “causality” between the new fast-transmitting variant and the spike in new cases in London and southeast England, which prompted the measures outlined by Johnson on Saturday.

London and southeast England have been placed in the new Tier 4 of the alert system, which has varying curbs, from Tier 1 (lowest) to Tier 4 (toughest; equivalent to full lockdown). People are prohibited from travelling to and out of Tier 4.

Also Read: Israelis returning from UK to be sent to quarantine hotels

Hancock indicated in Sunday’s media interviews that London’s lockdown could last months, until vaccines are rolled out across the population. So far, 350,000 people have been received the first shots of their two-dose vaccine delivered by Pfizer-BioNTech.

“There are no easy answers or easy options. I think the mistake would be to ignore new scientific evidence,” he added.

London’s airports, train stations and roads were clogged on Saturday night as thousands tried to escape the new lockdown restrictions that came into effect early on Sunday. Scotland Yard said the police would enforce Tier 4 rules from Sunday.

People’s fury at Christmas plans being cancelled was reflected in screaming newspaper headlines on Sunday and veteran Conservative MP Charles Walker calling on Hancock to resign, amid growing criticism in the ruling over party over handling of the virus situation.

Hancock said he understood Walker’s frustrations, which he admitted are shared by millions of others, but he said he is focused on the job and “of course” will be staying in his position, adding, “I am dealing with a global pandemic in the best way I can...and we must take action, however uncomfortable we find it.”

He said he is “very worried” about the health service’s capacity to deal with the current crisis, saying there are currently 18,000 Covid-19 patients in hospitals, just below the peak seen during the first wave in March and April.

Also Read: Second Covid-19 vaccine authorized in US ships out

Scotland Yard commander Alex Murray said on Sunday, “I know Londoners will be deeply saddened by the news that the planned relaxation of the rules over the Christmas period has been scrapped. The news on the virus spread is stark and deeply concerning, and we must all now take immediate action to prevent the spread by staying at home and keeping ourselves safe.

“Across the city, officers will be deployed to take action against those people whose selfish action risks jeopardising the health of Londoners. Likewise, we will continue our joint enforcement with London’s 32 local authorities – clamping down on those businesses that also flout the rules and put health at risk.”

Murray warned, “Our fight against the virus is not over. The rules are very clear and our collective actions in the next two weeks will have a direct impact on how quickly our city will recover. If people ignore these new rules, make reckless decisions that risk lives, I make no apology for the subsequent enforcement action that will follow.”

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Thursday, December 09, 2021