European countries began closing their borders to travelers from the United Kingdom on Sunday and the European Union set up a crisis management meeting a day after Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson ordered a wholesale lockdown on London and surrounding counties, citing concerns of a new fast-spreading variant of the coronavirus.
Train stations in London on Saturday night filled with crowds of people scrambling to leave the city to escape the new restrictions, which went into effect at midnight on Saturday and effectively quarantined the capital and other areas from the rest of the country, the harshest measures to be taken since the country’s first lockdown in March.
On Sunday, Britain’s health secretary, Matt Hancock, called those who packed trains “clearly irresponsible.” He also said that the restrictions Mr. Johnson imposed could be in place for months.
Worried by the potential influx of travelers from Britain, the Netherlands said it would suspend flights from Britain from Sunday until Jan. 1, noting that the variant found in England “is thought to spread more easily and more quickly.”
Italy also suspended air travel, citing a duty to protect Italians, and Belgian officials on Sunday enacted a 24-hour ban on arrivals from the United Kingdom by air or train, which could be extended. Germany is drawing up regulations limiting travelers from Britain as well as travelers from South Africa, where a similarly contagious version of the virus has emerged. Other countries are also considering bans, among them France, Austria and Ireland, according to local media.
Spain asked the European Union for a coordinated response, and senior officials from the bloc’s 27 member states met by video conference Sunday evening to share their plans. They agreed to decide on any coordinated action at the crisis management meeting, to be held Monday morning.
Transport officials in England said that they would increase the number of police officers monitoring hubs like railway stations to ensure only essential journeys were being taken.
Viral mutations are not uncommon, and British officials said this variant had been detected in a handful of other countries. And a similarly contagious version of the virus has emerged in South Africa, which seems to share some of the mutations seen in the British variant.
The estimate of greater transmissibility for the British variant — officials put the figure at 70 percent — is based on modeling and has not been confirmed by lab experiments, said Muge Cevik, an infectious disease expert at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland and a scientific adviser to the British government.
“Over all, I think we need to have a little bit more experimental data,” she said. “We can’t entirely rule out the fact that some of this transmissibility data might be related to human behavior.”