Germany, France Put UK on List of High-risk Covid Countries, Ban Most Travel as Omicron Fears Mount

Germany’s health authority announced late Saturday that Britain had been added to its list of Covid high-risk countries, which will mean tighter travel restrictions. While France said Thursday that it would ban non-essential travel to and from Britain in a bid to keep the Omicron Covid-19 variant in check. This comes after European leaders urged coordinated action and more booster shots to counter the more highly contagious threat.

The decision is a response to the rapid spread of the Omicron variant, which forced London’s mayor Sadiq Khan to declare a “major incident” on Saturday in the British capital.

The change, which takes effect at the end of the day Sunday at midnight, means arrivals from Britain will have to observe a two-week quarantine regardless of whether they are vaccinated, said the country’s health agency, the Robert Koch Institute (RKI). The United Kingdom is now considered a “variant zone” of Covid-19, a category reserved for nations where the risk is the highest.

“The United Kingdom and Northern Ireland are very strongly affected by Covid-19. A new variant, very contagious, has also been found,” the Germany Ministry of Foreign Affairs said on its website. More than 65,000 new Covid cases were confirmed in London over the past seven days, with 26,418 cases reported in the last 24 hours -– the highest number since the start of the pandemic.

That is why these territories, including the Isle of Wight and the Channel Islands, have been placed for 14 days in the category of areas at very high risk, it said. In addition to the quarantine measure, only German nationals or foreigners residing in Germany will be allowed to come to the country from Britain. The rule applies to all means of transport and a PCR test will be required for all persons travelling to Germany.

Berlin’s new health minister Karl Lauterbach has already sounded the alarm in the face of the risk of a new wave that could soon sweep over the country, hard hit since the beginning of the autumn. “The more we can push back… the better,” he said on Saturday. Several other European countries, including France, have already taken steps to limit the entry of travellers from the United Kingdom. Meanwhile, German authorities have placed France and Denmark among the “high risk” contamination zones, a level below the UK.

Countries worldwide have begun advising against foreign travel while ramping up domestic restrictions to battle Omicron, even though scientists remain uncertain how dangerous it is.

Britain has seen case levels explode in recent weeks to record levels amid fears the variant could overwhelm hospitals during the dinners and parties for the year-end holidays.

Starting at midnight Saturday (2300 GMT Friday), the French government said, travellers will need “an essential reason to travel to, or come from, the UK, both for the unvaccinated and vaccinated… People cannot travel for touristic or professional reasons.”

It added that French citizens and EU nationals could still return to France from the UK, but they will now need a negative Covid test less than 24 hours old, and a blanket quarantine will be enforced upon their return.

The Spanish government said meanwhile that boosters would soon be available for everyone aged 40 and older, down from 65 and older currently.

EU drug regulators on Thursday also approved Pfizer’s Covid pill for emergency use by member states struggling with the new coronavirus wave.

‘Tightening the net’

In France, the “drastic” new limits on travel to Britain aim to give the country time to give 20 million booster jabs by Christmas — and the country may soon open up vaccinations to children aged 5 to 11.

“People (coming back) will have to register on an app and will have to self-isolate in a place of their choosing for seven days — controlled by the security forces — but this can be shortened to 48 hours if a negative test is carried out in France,” government spokesman Gabriel Attal said.

Britain on Thursday recorded a record 88,376 laboratory-confirmed Covid cases, with scientists predicting even higher rates as Omicron is believed to spread much faster than the currently dominant Delta variant.

“It’s down to individual countries to decide their approach,” a spokesman for British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said in response to the French restrictions. “We’ve maintained that travel abroad will be different this year and that countries may impose border measures at short notice,” he added.

At the Eurostar terminal at St Pancras station in London, many passengers were scrambling to change tickets to arrive in Paris before Saturday and pass the holidays with family. “I have friends who are panicking,” said Marie Geoffroy, a 43-year-old who lives in London who was about to board. “These last-minute changes are stressful, it feels like you’ve been taken hostage,” she said.

‘Fear the worst’

The French move comes after Canada urged its citizens to avoid foreign travel over the Christmas holidays, with Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos saying the Omicron variant “makes us fear the worst.”

South Korea said it would reimpose coronavirus curfews on restaurants, cinemas and other businesses and limit the size of gatherings again in the face of record infection levels.

New York’s Metropolitan Opera, meanwhile, announced that it will require Covid booster shots from all its musicians and other employees — some 3,000 people — as well as anyone attending a performance.

The Omicron risk also elbowed its way into an EU summit meeting in Brussels on Thursday, with predictions the variant could become dominant in the bloc as soon as next month.

But leaders are struggling to forge a united approach to stop the spread, after several countries imposed emergency measures in recent days.

Omicron is “of significant concern obviously, in terms of the capacity of that variant to spread rapidly and create pressure on our societies and our health systems,” Irish Prime Minister Micheal Martin told journalists in Brussels.

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