Berlin - A sudden ban on flights to Germany from the UK saw 77 passengers forced to spend the night at Berlin Brandenburg Airport (BER) as they awaited a coronavirus test. The German Interior Ministry announced its decision to seal the country's borders to British travellers from midnight Berlin time on Monday morning following reports of a fast-spreading new variant of the virus in England. 

Germany followed the Netherlands, Belgium, Italy and Ireland in suspending incoming travel, with France subsequently imposing a 48 hour halt on air and train arrivals from the country. Switzerland, Austria, Argentina, Colombia, Chile, Canada and Kuwait have taken similar steps. Germany's ban will initially apply until December 31 and then face a review.

"We are making every effort to ensure that [the passengers] can enter and continue their journey as quickly as possible," a police spokeswoman was quoted by newswire dpa on Monday morning. She said four flights from Britain to Berlin on Sunday had been affected, arriving from London Heathrow, London Stansted, Manchester and Bristol. Passengers on these flights were reportedly "separated" by nationality – passengers with German citizenship were allowed to enter the country, but were reminded of the quarantine regulations of their respective states. 

Police say corona negative patients "won't be sent back to UK"

Passengers from other countries who could provide evidence of a negative Covid test result were also allowed to leave the airport. However, some non-German passengers had to spend the night in the terminal, pending a coronavirus test in the morning. Police said 77 Polish nationals were affected and camp beds had been set up for them.

"The passengers are staying in the airside area," said Hannes Hönemann, spokesman for Flughafen Berlin Brandenburg GmbH. 

Among those to board the final flight from London to Berlin before the ban came into effect was Tom Nuttall, Berlin bureau chief for British weekly The Economist. He wrote on Twitter that police at BER had told non-German passengers they would need to take a test before being let into the country – with a negative result meaning they wouldn't be sent back to the UK. Passengers resident in Berlin were subsequently allowed to leave the airport without taking a test, but would still have to quarantine and inform their local health office (Gesundheitsamt) in accordance with existing rules.

BER wasn't the only airport hit by confusion as passengers arrived just hours ahead of the ban. Footage acquired from Hanover airport by Bild newspaper showed passengers recently arrived from the UK, including German citizens and a family with a baby, being told they would have to wait overnight for a test before they could leave the airport.

Some passengers said they were being held against their will, while others demanded a lawyer. They too were given camp beds to sleep on overnight in the terminal, as were passengers arriving in Munich. Passengers arriving in Stuttgart and Hamburg last night also had to take PCR tests before they could leave the respective airports.

EU meeting on new variant today

An emergency EU meeting to discuss the new variant has been convened for today (Monday 21) by the German EU presidency. Health minister Jens Spahn (CDU) said he was taking the recent reports from the UK "very seriously", while SPD health expert Karl Lauterbach said the widespread arrival of the new mutation in Germany during the second wave of corona would be a "disaster".

"It would be like if I had a fire and poured gasoline on it," he told the Bild talk show "The Right Questions".

According to initial findings by British scientists, the recently identified new mutation could be up to 70 per cent more contagious than the previously known form. However, the British government says there is no evidence it is more deadly or resistant to vaccines already developed against the coronavirus. London and the worst affected parts of southeast England have nonetheless been placed under heavy lockdown restrictions.

The variant has also been detected in South Africa, meaning travellers arriving from there are also now subject to systematic checks. Passengers are expected to accurately complete the Digital Registration on Entry form with all details of their arrival in Germany, an Interior Ministry spokesman in Berlin said. Infection control measures are to be closely coordinated with local health authorities, and travellers have been told to expect longer waiting times at the borders. 

Excluded from the ban are cargo-only flights, flights with medical personnel or flights only with crews on board who want to return to Germany. The aim of the ban is to protect the German population and to "limit the entry and rapid spread of new variants of the virus". 

Drosten "far from concerned"

In spite of the sudden border lockdowns imposed across Europe yesterday, leading virologist Christian Drosten seems untroubled by the emergence of the new variant – and says it could well already be in the country. Although the variant detected in the UK has not yet appeared in Germany, cases have been found in other European countries such as Belgium, Denmark, Italy and the Netherlands.

"Why shouldn't it be in Germany?" Drosten told Deutschlandfunk radio on Monday morning.

He added that he could understand why politicians in Germany and elsewhere had closed their borders to UK arrivals, but empasised that the scientific data on the new mutation is still "very patchy", with the claim that it is up to 70 per cent more contagious currently just an estimate. He also said it would need to be clarified whether the mutated virus had triggered the new wave of infection in southeast England, as it has already been detected in other countries without resulting in a surge of cases as seen in the UK.