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EU countries to ban UK flights after spread of new virus strain



EU countries including Italy, Belgium and the Netherlands have announced bans on flights from the UK following a rapid spike in coronavirus cases, caused in part by a more infectious new strain of coronavirus, and other capitals are discussing similar measures. 

Rome has informed the UK government of plans to suspend flights from the country, Italy’s foreign minister Luigi Di Maio said on social media on Sunday. The Dutch government said it was stopping flights from the UK starting 6am CET on Sunday, and the Belgian prime minister announced a plan for air and rail travel bans. Austria is also preparing to ban UK travellers, according to its health ministry.

France has called an emergency inner cabinet meeting later on Sunday to discuss the matter.

The unilateral moves sparked calls for a more co-ordinated EU response to the worsening UK situation. The Elysée Palace said French President Emmanuel Macron, who is in isolation outside Paris suffering from Covid-19, had spoken to German Chancellor Angela Merkel as well as EU Commission and Council presidents Ursula von der Leyen and Charles Michel about how to handle the crisis.

The steps came after the UK imposed tough lockdown restrictions following the discovery of a new variant of coronavirus that is more transmissible than other strains in circulation.

Scientists are alarmed by the new variant, and the number of genetic mutations that have led to it. However it does not appear to cause more severe symptoms, scientists have said, and it is not believed to be more resistant to vaccines. 

The rapid spread of the new strain prompted UK prime minister Boris Johnson to scrap earlier plans for five-day bubbles of up to three households over the Christmas period. Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s first minister, has banned travel between Scotland and other parts of the UK during the festive season. 

Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon announces new Covid-19 measures at a press conference on Saturday © Scottish Government

As alarm spread across Europe, a number of member states began to discuss ways of restricting travel from the UK.

News agency DPA quoted a senior German official as saying that banning flights from the UK to Germany was a “serious option”; the German health ministry declined to comment. 

The Spanish government said it had asked Ms von der Leyen and Mr Michel to co-ordinate an EU-wide response “to protect EU citizens [and] avoid unilateral approaches”. Madrid added that it expected a speedy response from the EU but, in its absence, it would “act in defence of the interests and rights of Spanish citizens”.

The Elysée said Mr Macron had spoken with his EU counterparts to discuss both Brexit and the health situation in the UK and South Africa, where the new strain has also been identified. 

Italy’s blockade is expected to come into effect from midnight tonight. Mr Di Maio wrote on Facebook: “As a government, we have a duty to protect Italians, which is why, after alerting the British government, we are about to sign a measure with the Ministry of Health to suspend flights to Great Britain.”

Austria’s ministry of public health said on Sunday that it was preparing to implement a blanket ban on all travellers from the UK. Those entering the country from Britain are already required to quarantine for 14 days. The new measures will prevent entry altogether. So far no cases of the new variant of coronavirus have been detected in the country, health officials said. 

The Dutch government said it would explore with other EU member states the scope for “further limiting the risk of the new strain of the virus being brought over from the UK”. The Netherlands had detected a case of the same virus strain in its population in early December, it confirmed, and this is now being investigated. 

KLM is flying planes out of the UK to Amsterdam with no passengers, only cargo; it is still taking passengers on inbound flights to the UK.

Heathrow said that operations were continuing and it did not have a current number for how many flights have been cancelled, as the situation was changing so rapidly: “As more countries announce UK bans then the picture is going to change.”

Eurostar said it would be “unable to run trains between London, Brussels and Amsterdam” on Monday as a result of the Belgian government’s decision, but said that London-Paris services would continue to run.

Belgium’s prime minister Alexander de Croo this weekend announced a bar on UK flights from midnight on Sunday.

Norway’s health minister Bent Hoie said the country was considering introducing further restrictions on arrivals from the UK. Health authorities would make sure recent arrivals from the UK were aware of quarantine rules and they could be automatically offered quick Covid tests. 

Ireland also warned that it was considering examining proposals on Sunday to impose a ban from midnight on flights and ferries coming in from Britain, said an senior Irish official. The ban would apply for an initial period of 48 hours, the official added.

Stephen Donnelly, Irish health minister, told national broadcaster RTE that Dublin was “looking at travel to and from the island of Britain and Ireland generally and we’re giving it a lot of serious consideration”.

UK travellers also face greater restrictions on their ability to enter the EU after the end of the post-Brexit transition period. From January 1 the UK will be subject to a system that only allows non-essential travel from a handful of non-EU countries with low coronavirus infection rates, the European Commission said earlier this month.

Reporting by Sam Fleming, Victor Mallet, Martin Arnold, Daniel Dombey, Davide Ghiglione, Leslie Hook, Sam Jones and Richard Milne

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Global house prices: Raising the roof




Global house prices: Raising the roof

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Missing Belarus activist found hanged in Kyiv park




Belarus updates

A Belarusian opposition activist has been found hanged from a tree in a park near his home in Ukraine, a day after he was reported missing. Local police said his death could have been made to look like suicide.

Vitaly Shishov, who led the Kyiv-based organisation Belarusian House, which helps Belarusians fleeing persecution find their feet in Ukraine, had been reported missing by his partner on Monday after not returning from a run.

Shishov’s death follows weeks of increased pressure in Belarus by authorities against civil society activists and independent media as part of what the country’s authoritarian president Alexander Lukashenko has called a “mopping-up operation” of “bandits and foreign agents”.

Many Belarusians have fled the country since Lukashenko launched a brutal crackdown last summer after nationwide protests erupted following his disputed victory in presidential elections. About 35,000 people have been arrested in Belarus and more than 150,000 are thought to have crossed into neighbouring Ukraine.

Franak Viacorka, an aide to Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya who met UK prime minister Boris Johnson on Tuesday in London, said Shishov’s death was “absolutely shocking and unexpected to all of us”.

“He [Shishov] and his friends helped people who were moving to Ukraine,” Viacorka told the Financial Times. “They were very helpful, especially for those who have just arrived and didn’t know what to do.”

Viacorka said many activists living in Ukraine, such as Shishov who fled Belarus in 2020, had “complained about possibly being followed, and receiving threats”.

Kyiv park where Vitaly Shyshov’s body was found
The Kyiv park where Vitaly Shishov’s body was found after he failed to return home following a run © Gleb Garanich/Reuters

Downing Street said that after meeting Tsikhanouskaya, Johnson condemned the Lukashenko regime’s severe human rights violations. “The UK stands in solidarity of the people of Belarus and will continue to take action to support them,” a spokesperson said.

Ukrainian police have now launched a criminal case for the suspected murder of Shishov, including the possibility of “murder disguised as suicide”.

Yuriy Shchutsko, an acquaintance and fellow Belarus refugee who found Shishov’s body, ruled out suicide, pointing out that Shishov’s nose was broken.

“I suspect this was the action of the [Belarus] KGB . . . we knew they were hunting for us,” he told Ukrainian television.

Ihor Klymenko, head of the National Police of Ukraine, subsequently said Shishov’s body had what appeared to be “torn tissue” on his nose and other wounds, but stressed it would be up to medical examiners to determine if these were caused by beatings or the result of suicide.

There was no immediate comment from Lukashenko or his administration.

Belarusian House said: “There is no doubt that this is an operation planned by the Chekists [the Belarusian KGB] to eliminate someone truly dangerous for the regime.

“Vitalik was under surveillance,” it added. “We were repeatedly warned by both local sources and our people in the Republic of Belarus about all kinds of provocations up to kidnapping and liquidation.”

Adding to the swirl of attention on Belarus this week, Tokyo Olympics sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya on Monday took refuge in Poland’s embassy after alleging she had been taken to the airport against her will, having criticised her Belarusian coaches.

The athlete has said she feared punishment if she went back to Belarus but has so far declined to link her problems to the country’s divisions.

Shishov’s death comes five years after Pavel Sheremet, a prominent Belarus-born opposition figure and journalist, was killed in an improvised bomb explosion in downtown Kyiv while driving to work at a local radio station. Lukashenko has ruled Belarus since 1994.

Ukrainian authorities at first suggested Belarusian or Russian security services could have been involved in the hit, as Sheremet was close to opposition movements in Russia as well.

Instead, officials charged three Ukrainian volunteers who supported war efforts against Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine — although they steadfastly denied involvement and authorities were unable to provide a motive in what has been widely described as a flimsy case.

Additional reporting by Jasmine Cameron-Chileshe in London

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EU pledges aid to Lithuania to combat illegal migration from Belarus




EU immigration updates

In the latest sign of deteriorating relations between the EU and Belarus, Brussels has promised extra financial aid and increased diplomatic heft to help Lithuania tackle a migrant crisis that it blames on neighbouring Belarus and its dictator Alexander Lukashenko.

Lithuania detained 287 illegal migrants on Sunday, more than it did in the entirety of 2018, 2019, and 2020 combined, the vast majority of them Iraqis who had flown to Belarus’s capital Minsk before heading north to cross into the EU state. Almost 4,000 migrants have been detained this year, compared with 81 for the whole of 2020. 

“What we are facing is an aggressive act from the Lukashenko regime designed to provoke,” Ylva Johansson, the EU commissioner for home affairs told reporters on Monday after talks with Lithuania’s prime minister Ingrida Simonyte. “The situation is getting worse and deteriorating . . . There is no free access to EU territory.”

The EU imposed sweeping sanctions against Lukashenko’s regime in June, after he fraudulently claimed victory in last year’s presidential election and then led a brutal campaign to violently suppress protesters and jail political opponents. Lukashenko has ruled Belarus since 1994.

The rising concern over the migrant crossings, which EU officials say is a campaign co-ordinated by Lukashenko’s administration, comes as one of the country’s athletes competing in the Tokyo Olympic Games sought refuge in Poland after team management attempted to fly her home against her will after she publicly criticised their actions.

Johansson said the EU would provide €10m-€12m of immediate emergency funding and would send a team of officials to the country to assess the requirements for longer-term financial assistance, including for extra border security and facilities to process those attempting to enter.

Simonyte said that Vilnuis would require “tens of millions of euros” by the end of the year if the number of people attempting to cross the border continued at the current pace.

Lithuania’s foreign minister Gabrielius Landsbergis told the Financial Times in June that Belarus was “weaponising” illegal immigration to put pressure on the Baltic country over its housing of several opposition leaders. Since then, the flow of illegal immigrants from Iraq, Syria, and several African countries has increased sharply.

Iraqi diplomats visited Vilnius at the end of last week after Lithuania’s foreign minister flew to Baghdad in mid-July. Johannson said on Monday that EU diplomats were engaged in “intensive contacts” with Iraqi officials, which she said were “more constructive than we had hoped”.

State carrier Iraqi Airways offers flights from four Iraqi airports to Minsk, according to its website. Former Estonian president Toomas Ilves suggested on Twitter that the EU could cut its aid to Iraq “immediately until they stop these flights”.

Speaking at the border with Belarus on Monday, Johansson added that the tents provided by Lithuania were unsuitable for families. Lithuania’s interior minister Agne Bilotaite said she hoped the number of illegal migrants would subside in the coming months but that Vilnius was planning to build some housing to accommodate them over the upcoming winter.

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