Spain strengthens controls on UK arrivals amid fears of mutant coronavirus strain

While several European countries have banned flights arriving from the country, the Spanish government says it is waiting for a joint response from the EU

A woman walking down an empty street in Dover.
A woman walking down an empty street in Dover.ANDY RAIN (EFE)
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Spain suspends flights from the UK apart from those carrying Spaniards, Spanish residents

The Spanish government has ruled out for now canceling flights from the United Kingdom despite fears over a new, more contagious strain of the coronavirus in the country. On Sunday, several European countries, including Germany, Italy and France, announced a temporary halt on passenger flights arriving from the UK in a bid to stop the mutant strain of coronavirus crossing their borders. The Spanish government, however, did not follow suit, and instead called for a joint response from the European Union. While it awaits this response, the government announced that controls at airports and ports will be strengthened to ensure that all arrivals from the UK have a negative coronavirus test result.

“We have chosen to support coordinated measures. It would be good for there to be a coordinated response on a European level,” said Spanish Health Minister Salvador Illa in a radio interview with Rac1 on Monday. According to Illa, there is currently no evidence that the mutant strain of the virus is present in Spain, although this does not mean “that it is not here.” He added that a coronavirus vaccine would be “effective” against the new variant.

We must find out whether or not this strain is circulating in areas where there is more interaction with Britons
José Martínez Olmos, professor of the Andalusian School of Public Health

The decision has been questioned by some health experts and political leaders. On Monday, Basque premier Iñigo Urkullu said he favored “closing the airspace” with the UK, and added that he has already talked to the central government about his concerns.

But Spanish Deputy Prime Minister Carmen Calvo insisted on Monday that the government is waiting for a joint EU position. “Let’s not make scientific speculations because our country has been protected for a long time,” she said, alluding to PCR testing.

According to a report published Sunday by the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), the mutant strain of the coronavirus detected in Britain could be up to 70% more contagious. “This new variant has emerged at a time of the year when there has traditionally been increased family and social mixing. There is no indication at this point of increased infection severity associated with the new variant,” the document said. The ECDC recommended that countries sequence the virus isolates to identify new variants of the virus and restrict all non-essential activity and travel.

The president of the European Council, Charles Michel, organized on Sunday an urgent videoconference with EU member states to coordinate a joint response to the mutant strain. At the meeting, representatives discussed what measures they were going to adopt with respect to the travel ban on UK flights and PCR requirements. Another meeting is scheduled for Monday to continue the effort to reach a joint response. On Monday, the European Medicines Agency is also expected to approve the coronavirus vaccine developed by Pfizer and BioNTech.

The Spanish government on Sunday did not support countries taking unilateral decisions with respect to the UK travel ban and called for a coordinated response from the EU. Sources from the government said that the executive will insist on “the need to adopt coordinated measures on flights coming from the United Kingdom” at the EU meeting on Monday. In the meantime, controls will be strengthened on coronavirus tests done at the point of departure – a measure Fernando Simón, the director of the Spanish Health Ministry’s Coordination Center for Health Alerts (CCAES), has previously criticized for having limited effect.

If it is confirmed that the variant spreads more virulently, the third wave could be much worse than the second
Elvis García, doctor in public health at Harvard University

Elvis García, a doctor in public health at Harvard University, warned that the Spanish government should not wait to cancel flights. “The problem of this new variant is that if it is confirmed that it spreads more virulently, the third wave could be much worse than the second, given that the government has committed itself to ‘saving Christmas,’ making curfew hours more flexible and keeping the hostelry sector open,” he told EL PAÍS. “If this mutation can teach us something, it is that the virus is a step ahead of us and if we don’t take more drastic measures, we will continue to lag behind. In other words, we will have more deaths.”

José Martínez Olmos, professor of the Andalusian School of Public Health, also supported tougher restrictions. “We must find out whether or not this strain is circulating in areas where there is more interaction with Britons: the Canary Islands, the Balearic Islands, Valencia, Andalusia (Costa del Sol) and Gibraltar, as well as ban flights,” he added.

The move to Britain comes amid negotiations for a last-minute trade deal before the Brexit transition period comes to an end on December 31. If the negotiations do not end well, as of January 1, the UK may be subject to stricter travel rules.

With reporting by Santiago Cañas.

English version by Melissa Kitson.

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