Growing alarm over an outbreak of a more contagious variant of the coronavirus in Britain prompted mounting concern and travel chaos on Monday as more than 30 nations banned travelers from the country, suspending flights and cutting off trade routes in scenes reminiscent of the early frenzied days of the pandemic.
Monday should have been a day of breakthroughs. In the United States, federal lawmakers reached a deal on a $900 billion stimulus package and the rollout of a second vaccine, made by Moderna, was set to begin. Across the Atlantic, the European Union’s drug authority authorized the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, paving the way for millions of doses to be transferred to all 27 European Union member states.
Instead, announcements by government officials sent financial markets reeling. Stocks in Europe were sharply lower, along with energy prices and the British pound. On Wall Street, the decline was tempered slightly by news of the stimulus deal.
Britain was all but cut off from the rest of Europe on Monday, with flights and trains banned and freight deliveries temporarily halted at French ports. The disruptions stoked fears of panic buying in British supermarkets, as Britons, already rattled by a surge in infections and a hastily imposed lockdown in much of England, worried about running out of fresh food in the days before Christmas.
It all added up to a chilling preview, 10 days before a deadline to negotiate a post-Brexit trade agreement between Britain and the European Union, of what a chaotic rupture between the two sides might actually look like.
The upheaval over the virus mutation grew after Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain said that it had been shown to be 70 percent more contagious than other variants. But the 70 percent estimate of greater transmissibility is only 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. British officials said there was no reason to believe that the new variant caused more serious illness.
But the statistic raised alarm around the world. France imposed a 48-hour suspension of freight transit across the English Channel, leaving thousands of truck drivers stranded in their vehicles on Monday as the roads leading to England’s ports were turned into parking lots. About a quarter of all food eaten in Britain is produced in the European Union, and the suspension raised concern about the possibility of food shortages.
Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy and the Netherlands were among the nations that announced restrictions on travel. Air passengers from the United Kingdom arriving in Germany were detained at airports on Sunday night. Poland said it would suspend flights between the two countries starting Monday.
Hong Kong on Monday also closed its borders to travelers from Britain, saying all passenger flights from the country would be barred starting at midnight. The ban will be extended for the first time to Hong Kong residents. Canada, India, Iran, and Russia also issued new restrictions.
European Union leaders planned to meet on Monday to devise a “common doctrine” for dealing with the variant’s threat, while Mr. Johnson was planning to convene his government’s emergency committee.
Israel is essentially closing its skies to most foreign nationals from Wednesday afternoon and local airlines are laying on extra flights to get Israelis back home from abroad before then, when new quarantine regulations will kick in — Israelis returning from anywhere after that will have to quarantine in a special “corona hotel” for 10-14 days.
Saudi Arabia went even further in trying to halt the variant from gaining traction, announcing a one week ban on all international travel, according to the Saudi Press Agency.
In the United States, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York urged the federal government to take action, saying that “right now, this variant in the U.K. is getting on a plane and flying to J.F.K.,” while also acknowledging that it may be too late.
After expressing frustration over the country’s lack of response to the new coronavirus strain reported in Britain, Gov. Cuomo said he took it upon himself to ask the three major airlines that oversee air travel between the United Kingdom and New York — British Airways, Delta Air Lines and Virgin Atlantic — to require passengers to get tested for the coronavirus before they are allowed to fly into the state.
“You have many countries that have just restricted flights from the U.K.,” said Mr. Cuomo said at a news conference on Monday. “And the United States has done nothing.” He cautioned: “If it’s been flying around the world, it will be here.”
So far, only British Airways has agreed to the safety precaution, but Mr. Cuomo warned that if Delta Air Lines and Virgin Atlantic did not follow suit, “we will pursue other options.” The governor recognized that he does not have the authority to halt air travel, but also asserted that he has some legal jurisdiction once passengers land on New York soil. In his plea, Mr. Cuomo recalled the state’s first coronavirus wave in the spring originated in Europe. “This is how we had the New York ambush in the first place,” Mr. Cuomo said.
Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York City urged further restrictions on Monday morning. “In my view, it’s time for a travel ban from Europe,” Mr. de Blasio said at a news conference. “Or at minimum a requirement that anyone getting on a plane has proof that they have a negative test if they’re coming out of Europe.”
The United States has yet to make a decision on a travel ban as the virus shows no signs of abating — parts of California are down to their last I.C.U. beds and some hospitals in other states are at or over capacity — and the numbers are still as high and alarming as they have ever been: At least 317,800 people have died in the United States, more than anywhere in the world.
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