France joins a long list of countries to have banned travel from the UK over fears of the new Covid strain, which the UK government says could be up to 70 percent more contagious.
France's health minister Oliver Véran said there was as yet no proof that the new variant is more contagious, but France was taking precautionary measures.
He told Europe 1 radio on Monday morning: “It's the same virus, but whose genetic code has been a little disrupted, […] which happens quite frequently.
“This variation of the virus has been identified in an area of England where we are also witnessing a high level of virus circulation.
“English scientists wonder whether this new variant could be more contagious than the others, they have no proof, but you understand that we take all the necessary precautions.”
Germany will also suspend air links with Britain “from midnight”, the health minister said on Sunday whilst in Italy Health Minister Roberto Speranza stated announced he had signed an ordinance “which blocks flights from Great Britain and prohibits entry into Italy of people who have stayed there during the last 14 days”.
France's ban covers travel by air, road, rail and sea and came into operation at midnight on Sunday.
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Only unaccompanied freight will be allowed into France.
Transport from France to the UK is not affected.
The initial ban will be for 48 hours while France talks to fellow EU member states and works on putting in place extra controls at the border.
Transport minister Jean-Baptiste Djebbari said on Monday morning that a protocol will be put in place “within the next few hours”.
The statement from French Prime Minister Jean Castex said: “The 48-hour time limit is intended to achieve two objectives:
“To allow time for coordination between EU Member States in order to define a common doctrine on the regulation and control of travel from the United Kingdom;
“To prepare operationally for the secure reopening of traffic flow from the United Kingdom from December 22nd, based on a mandatory testing system at the start of the journey.
“We will pay particular attention to the specific situation of French nationals who plan to return to France to spend the festive season with their families. We are already encouraging them to make arrangements for a PCR test in the coming days.”
Compte tenu du risque sanitaire nouveau, et dans l'attente de son évaluation, l'ensemble des flux de personnes du Royaume-Uni vers la France sont suspendus à partir de ce soir minuit, pour 48 heures, et pour tous les moyens de transport. pic.twitter.com/nvIfb41Ila
— Jean Castex (@JeanCASTEX) December 20, 2020
The Netherlands, Ireland, Bulgaria, Austria and Belgium have already suspended flights from the UK.
France's government convened a meeting of the Defence Council – which deals with health restrictions – on Sunday evening to discuss the issue.
Discussions have been ongoing on Sunday between French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Ursula von der Leyen and Charles Michel in Brussels.
Germany announced on Sunday afternoon that it will ban all flights from the UK and South Africa – where the new virus strain has also been reported – from midnight on Sunday. The ban will last until January 6th.
The new variant of the Covid-19 virus is believed to have first appeared in the London and Kent areas in September, and is reported to be up to 70 percent more contagious than other strains.
The variant was cited by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson as the reason behind last-minute changes to health restrictions in London and South East England, announced on Saturday, which have seen thousands of people unable to travel as planned over Christmas.
The French government said: “It is not clear at this stage that the so-called “rapid” spread of this mutation in the United Kingdom is linked to an intrinsic property of this virus. The fact that this strain is more contagious has not been demonstrated at this stage.”
“However,” the statement added, “on Saturday December 19th, against the backdrop of the acceleration of the epidemic in the UK over the past few days, British health authorities notified the World Health Organisation (WHO) of the information that this mutation could possibly be more contagious than the other variants of SARS-CoV-2.
“This is why, following a Defence Council meeting chaired by the President, it was decided to suspend all passenger travel, including freight transport, by road, air, sea or rail from the United Kingdom for 48 hours from midnight (Paris time) this evening – December 20th.”
Following the UK's announcement on Saturday, the Dutch government announced on Sunday morning that it was banning all flights from the UK until January 1st.
The Belgian, Bulgarian and Italian governments followed suit, with Italy banning all flights from the UK and the entry of anyone who had been in the UK in the last 14 days.
Ireland has also announced it will be suspending all flights and ferries from the UK, for an initial period of 48 hours.
On the question of whether there should be a coordinated EU response, European commissioner Thierry Breton said the issue was one of individual member states to decide.
He said: “It is very difficult to take decisions for 456 million people at the same time. It is in Kent that we discover this change, but chould it have repercussions in the Czech Republic, Romania or Greece.
“We will continue, and this is our strength, to deal with our differences (…). It is the Member States that decide, and then we try to draw up the best practices to apply them.”
Most countries had specified that only air travel would be affected, but a large proportion of travel between France and the UK is via Eurostar, ferry or the Channel Tunnel – the French announcement makes it clear that all these methods of travel will be affected.
For most people, travel between the UK and France has only been possible since December 15th when France lifted its lockdown.
Travellers from the UK already face the possibility of a ban on non-essential travel from January 1st, when the UK will be outside the EU and therefore covered by the closure of the Bloc's external borders, which has been in place since March.