Photo: NIKLAS HALLE’N/AFP via Getty Images

New York Daily News: Sunday, December 20, 2020 – The European Union is scrambling to prevent the spread of a new, more infectious COVID-19 strain that forced Britain to order a strict lockdown this week.

Several EU nations on Sunday announced they would temporarily ban flights from the U.K. while others considered limiting such flights or imposing harsher quarantine measures for people arriving from the country.

Belgium issued a 24-hour ban on flights from the UK starting at midnight while the Netherlands halted flights until at least the rest of 2020. Officials in Italy and Austria said they would suspend UK flights as well but did not immediately provide details Sunday.

Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio announced on Twitter that his country was about to sign an order to suspend such flights in an effort “to protect Italians.” In Germany, meanwhile, authorities said they were considering “serious options” regarding incoming flights from the UK.

In the Czech Republic, officials did not immediately halt any flights but imposed new quarantine measures for passengers arriving from the UK.

The actions announced this weekend come after British Prime Minister Boris Johnson shut down most stores and nonessential businesses in London and surrounding areas under a new Tier 4 lockdown level, the most severe since the pandemic began. The move was an attempt to curb a fast-moving new variant of coronavirus that is 70% more transmissible than existing ones.

Johnson said there’s no evidence to suggest the new strain is more lethal, but his government believes the variant is driving a surge of infections in the London region.

Under the new rules, mixing households for the holidays would be strictly prohibited.

“It is with a very heavy heart that I must tell you we cannot continue with Christmas as planned,” the prime minister told his country on Saturday.

The announcement prompted thousands of Brits to rush to train stations in a frantic attempt to get out of London ahead of the new restrictions. Videos shared on social media showed crowds of passengers crammed into packed trains and stations.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock said “those scenes were totally irresponsible.”

“We in government of course have a responsibility, but so does every single person,” he said. “The plea that I have is that people will play their part. Because it is only by acting — all of us — that we can get this under control.”

The World Health Organization said it was working with UK officials to better understand the new virus strain.

“In the meantime, we continue to advise people to take all protective measures to prevent the spread of the #COVID19 virus and comply with national authorities’ guidance,” the agency tweeted Saturday night.

  • Top Feature Photo: Grounded due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Netherlands, Belgium, other EU nations are banning flights from UK as new COVID strain continues to spread – BEN STANSALL/AFP via Getty Images