Behind the scenes

Will European countries follow France to ban UK travel?

Paris blocks arrivals from Britain as Omicron cases spiral

France has tightened Covid-19 restrictions for people arriving from the UK in a bid to stem the spread of the Omicron variant.

From midnight today, a “compelling reason” will be required for entry to France from Britain, where the new strain of the virus is driving record infection rates. “Some lorry drivers and students” will be permitted entry under the new restrictions, the BBC reported, but “Brits visiting relatives” will be turned away.

What France said

Government spokesperson Gabriel Attal told France’s BFM television that under the new rules, people arriving from Britain will also be required to show a negative PCR test that is less than 24 hours old, rather than the current 48 hours. They will have to test again on arrival and isolate “in a place they choose” for at least 48 hours while awaiting the result, he said, adding that the “more drastic” measures were vital to prevent the spread of Omicron.

Prime Minister Jean Castex said that the “requirement to have an essential reason to travel to, or come from, the UK” applied “both for the unvaccinated and vaccinated”. “People cannot travel for touristic or professional reasons,” he confirmed in a statement.

Tickets for flights, trains and ferries to France “sold out within hours” following the announcement yesterday, “as travellers made desperate attempts to get to the country before the new ban came into force”, said the Daily Mail.

“Tens of thousands of Britons were due to travel to France on Christmas ski holidays this weekend,” said The Times, which reported that airlines had “laid on extra planes, such was the demand”. But “holiday companies began cancelling departures immediately” as France prepared to close its borders to arrivals from across the Channel. 

“Anyone who is booked on a package holiday will be given the option to cancel and get a refund or to defer”, according to the paper, but “those who have made independent bookings may struggle to recoup their losses”. 

The new restrictions have caused despair and anger within the travel industry. A Brittany Ferries spokesperson described the measures as a “hammer blow to our Christmas season”.

What is the situation in France?

The BBC reported that “French citizens, their partners and children, legal residents, and EU citizens travelling home through France, won't need an essential reason to travel – but must still abide by all other rules”.

The new restrictions was announced after France recorded more than 65,000 new Covid infections on Wednesday, taking the country’s seven-day rolling average to around 50,000 – the highest since November last year. 

However, France had reported only 240 confirmed cases of Omicron as of yesterday, compared with the more than 10,000 in the UK.

The “abrupt” crackdown on UK travellers follows “weeks of political tensions between France and Britain over fishing rights and how to deal with migration in dangerous small boats across the English Channel”, said The Independent.

France’s government is also “desperately trying to avoid a new lockdown or stricter measures that would hurt the economy” and “cloud” Emmanuel Macron’s bid to secure a second term as president in next year's election, the paper added. 

Will other European countries follow? 

EU leaders “are expected to put on a show of unity” over the emergence of the Omicron variant, “agreeing that countries should coordinate on travel”, said Politico. However, country’s across the bloc are reportedly divided over “whether it would be better to wait and see how Omicron plays out” before making any decisions.

An unnamed EU diplomat told the news site that Belgium, Estonia, Finland and the Netherlands were the loudest cheerleaders for a “quick, timely revision” of current travel rules – which suggests that these countries might soon follow France’s lead on tighter restrictions.

By contrast, the UK government this week removed all remaining 11 countries from its travel red list. 

“Now that there is community transmission of Omicron in the UK and Omicron has spread so widely across the world, the travel red list is now less effective in slowing the incursion of Omicron from abroad,” Health Secretary Sajid Javid told Parliament.

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