Shaken by new coronavirus strain, world shuts the door on Britain
By Gerhard Mey and Ben Makori
DOVER, England (Reuters) - A number of countries closed their borders with the UK on Monday over fears that a highly infectious new strain of coronavirus is fueling global panic, causing travel chaos and the prospect of food shortages in the UK days before Brexit - Margin could increase.
India, Poland, Spain, Switzerland, Russia, Jordan and Hong Kong suspended travel for the British after Prime Minister Boris Johnson warned that a mutated variant of the virus, up to 70% more transmissible, had been identified in the country. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Oman have completely closed their borders.
Several other nations have suspended travel from the UK, including France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Austria, Ireland, Belgium, Israel and Canada - although scientists said the strain may already be circulating in countries with less advanced detection methods than the UK.
The discovery of the new strain came just months before the expected spread of vaccines, which sparked new panic in a pandemic that killed around 1.7 million people worldwide and more than 67,000 in the UK.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo urged the US government to take action to prevent the new tribe from entering the country worst hit by COVID-19, with nearly 318,000 deaths.
"It is high time the federal government acted quickly, because today this variant gets on a plane and lands in JFK. All it takes is one person," he said.
U.S. Deputy Health Secretary Brett Giroir said nothing had been decided on a travel ban. As the pandemic there accelerates, Congress was ready to vote on a $ 900 billion COVID-19 stimulus package after months of inactivity.
EU officials met on video to coordinate their response to the new strain of coronavirus. The block is well on its way to starting COVID-19 vaccinations within a week after the drug agency approved the use of a shot from Pfizer and BioNTech on Monday.
France closed its border to the arrival of people and trucks from Great Britain and closed one of the main trade routes with mainland Europe.
When families and truckers tried to bypass travel bans to get home in time for Christmas, UK supermarket chain Sainsbury's said that if transport links weren't quickly restored, bottlenecks would arise within days.
"If nothing changes, we will see gaps in lettuce, some lettuce leaves, cauliflower, broccoli and citrus fruits in the coming days, all of which are imported from the continent at this time of year," Sainsbury's said.
The French FNTR Road Transport Association said: "No driver wants to deliver to the UK now, so the UK freight supply will dry up."
"Sick Man from Europe"
The global alarm was reflected in the financial markets.
European stocks plummeted, with travel and leisure stocks taking the brunt of the pain; British Airways' IAG fell nearly 9%, easyJet 7% and Air France KLM 4%.
US carriers Delta Air Lines also suffered as American Airlines, United Airlines and Southwest Airlines all declined 5% to 7% in premarket trading.
The British pound fell 2.5% against the dollar and was on its way to its biggest one-day decline since March, while two-year UK government bond yields hit record lows.
The British tabloids lamented the crisis.
"Sick Man of Europe," said the Daily Mirror newspaper on its front page alongside a picture of Johnson, while the Sun newspaper said "French show no merci".
Johnson on Saturday canceled Christmas plans for millions of Britons due to the contagious strain of the coronavirus, despite no evidence that it was either more deadly or caused more serious illness.
The new variant and restrictions in the UK add to the chaos as the country prepares to secede from the European Union for good, possibly without a trade deal, as the Brexit transition period begins December 31 at 2300 GMT.
Talks on a Brexit trade deal should continue on Monday.
The new variety, which scientists said was 40 to 70% more transmissible, has quickly become the dominant variety in parts of southern England, including London.
However, experts stressed that there is no evidence that vaccines, including the UK-used Pfizer-BioNTech, would not protect against this variant.
"2020 NOT MADE WITH US"
Cases of the new strain have also been identified in a few other countries, including Italy and the Netherlands.
Australia said two people who traveled to New South Wales, the most populous state from the United Kingdom, carry the mutated virus. Dozens of domestic flights have been canceled while New South Wales incarcerated more than 250,000 people.
"2020 is not over with us," said Prime Minister Scott Morrison.
Some scientists said the prevalence discovered in the UK may be due to the discovery.
"Great Britain is simply the country in which these mutations occur most frequently because they are looking for them more. There are countries that hardly search or not at all," says Marc Van Ranst, virologist at the Rega Institute for Medical Research in Belgium. said Belgian broadcaster VRT.
"I think we will find in the coming days that many other countries will find it."
The new strain was identified at a time when COVID-19 cases have soared in several Asian countries where the pandemic had previously occurred, imposing severe restrictions.
In South Korea, where the number of new COVID-19 cases rose to over 1,000 a day several times in the past week, measures for flights from the UK were reviewed and flights arriving from there were tested twice before they were released from quarantine.
Thailand extended restrictions on movement and said it was testing tens of thousands of people after its worst outbreak to date.
(Additional reporting from Toby Melville, James Davey and Kate Kelland in London, Laurence Frost in Paris, Philip Blenkinsop in Brussels, Sayantani Ghosh in Singapore, Frank McGurty in New York, Josh Smith and Sangmi Cha in Seoul, Renju Jose in Sydney, Shilpa Jamkhandikar in Mumbai and Farah Master in Hong Kong; writing by Guy Faulconbridge and Pravin Char; editing by Alison Williams)
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