The U.K. has been plunged into Christmas chaos with police blocking people from boarding packed trains, holidays abroad scrapped and travel with Europe banned after London went into an emergency lockdown.
France on Sunday suspended inbound travel from the U.K. for 48 hours and Germany halted arriving flights from Britain, which is in the middle of delicate Brexit negotiations with its European Union partners. Those talks are still at a critical stage after the weekend.
In a sudden turnaround, Prime Minister Boris Johnson canceled plans to allow families to see each other over the festive period as the government warned that a new strain of the coronavirus is "out of control.” There were scenes of panic at train stations, with people defying social-distancing rules to get out of the capital before the new rules took effect on Sunday.
Ireland banned flights with the British mainland at least until Tuesday. Italy, the Netherlands and Belgium halted air, train or ferry links earlier.
France’s Emmanuel Macron, Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel, European Council President Charles Michel and EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen discussed the health situation in the U.K. as well as Brexit.
For the U.K., it’s a double body blow, leaving it potentially isolated with the pandemic still wreaking havoc. Its departure from the EU has been punctuated by a souring relationship with its neighbors. This latest twist during an unpredictable pandemic has its once-close partners putting up the shutters.
It will also unleash more damage to struggling European airlines. The country was the busiest in the region on Saturday with more than 2,200 flights, according to Eurocontrol.
More than 16 million Britons are now required to stay at home after new restrictions came into force in London and southeast England. The measures ban household mixing in the capital and the southeast, and restrict socializing to just Christmas Day across the rest of England.
For many Britons trying to see relatives or go on a winter vacation, the restrictions are a reminder of the last nationwide lockdown and will add to the burden of contending with a virus that is still dangerous, even with vaccines being rolled out into the population.
This is the latest U-turn from a government that has been reluctant to impose limits to movement, unless forced. Until Friday, Johnson was adamant that close households would be able to mix over Christmas. There is some unease among his Conservative rank-and-file lawmakers.
One Tory member of Parliament, Charles Walker, expressed dismay that the government had "pulled the plug” on Christmas in what is a clearly politically-sensitive time. U.K. Health Secretary Matt Hancock told Sky News presenter Sophy Ridge earlier this morning that the government had little choice because "this is deadly serious.”
While London’s Heathrow airport was crowded Sunday morning as dozens of planes departed, an 11:45 a.m. KLM service to Amsterdam left empty, according to a spokeswoman for the hub. Two later British Airways flights to the Dutch city were canceled. Most other operations at the airport were shown to be on schedule.
Kuwait’s aviation regulator tweeted that the U.K. has been reclassified as a high-risk country, which means incoming flights are not allowed.
The bans are very concerning, the spokeswoman said. Heathrow has just had one of its busiest weeks since the first U.K. lockdown as people caught flights in the run up to Christmas, and there are large numbers still due to travel, she added.
A spokesman for Schiphol airport in Amsterdam said planes arriving from London on Sunday were essentially empty. Deutsche Lufthansa AG has canceled crew layovers in the U.K. and is weighing further actions, a spokesman said.
Virgin Atlantic Airways Ltd. is reviewing its flight schedule in light of the Tier 4 restrictions. Customers on flights that are still scheduled will have the option to rebook, though like British Airways the airline is only offering cash refunds when it cancels a flight.
EasyJet PLC said it’s operating its schedule back to the U.K. but won’t fly any passengers to countries where it’s not permitted.
Eurostar International Ltd., which operates passenger trains through the Channel Tunnel, said Belgium’s decision to ban travelers from the U.K. from midnight tonight will force it to scrap services from London to Brussels Monday, spokeswoman Catherine Leonard said by phone.
Even before the new curbs, Eurostar had been operating a minimal service of one train a day in each direction on most routes to allow for emergency travel. Anyone leaving London faced quarantining on their return as well as possible restrictions at their destination.
In the meantime, cops are increasing patrols and focusing on popular spots in the capital. "At this critical moment for the city, officers across London will pay particular attention to those groups who have willfully ignored the rules, putting communities and lives at risk,” the Metropolitan police said.
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