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New COVID strain: UK travelers held at German airports

December 21, 2020

Dozens of people arriving from Britain spent the night at German airports due to a new COVID travel ban. A passenger in Hannover has tested positive for the virus.

Red Cross vehicles are parked on the tarmac at the Hanover Airport
Passengers on a flight from London spent an uneasy night in Hannover Airport after they were barred from leavingImage: Moritz Frankenberg/dpa/picture alliance

Passengers traveling from the United Kingdom to Germany on Sunday faced confusion, long waits and even a tense night spent in the airport as authorities on the ground struggled to sort out a new travel ban.

Germany joined several other countries in announcing a ban on flights from the UK on Sunday after a new coronavirus strain was discovered in England.

The travel ban went into effect at midnight, just a few hours after it was announced. The sudden decision left airport officials and border control police at a loss about what to do with the last arrivals — which included a mix of British and German citizens as well as German residents.

German authorities and health officials rushed to administer coronavirus tests to the newly-arrived passengers, although dozens were held until Monday morning until the test results had been returned.

Tensions in Hannover

Some 63 people arriving in Hannover from London on Sunday night were prevented from leaving the airport, sparking tensions among the detained passengers.

On Monday morning, local officials said at least one of the passengers had tested positive for COVID-19. Health authorities are carrying out further tests to determine whether the person is infected with the new strain, the Hannover city government said.

"We are at Hannover airport and we are held against our will, we were tested and were prohibited from leaving the premises while awaiting the results," said Manuela Thomys, in a video shared online by the German daily Bild newspaper.

"Please help us leave!" the German-speaking woman appealed in the video. A person holding a baby could be seen in the background.

The passengers spent the night in the terminal, with cots set out for the passengers. Some voiced concerns about potentially becoming infected while being held in the airport.

"Our aim is to prevent the new variant of the virus from entering the region," said Hannover health official Andreas Kranz

In contrast to the videos filmed by some of the passengers, Kranz said that the passengers showed "quite a bit of understanding for the measures."

What happened at other German airports?

Similar chaotic scenes were witnessed in Berlin, as arrivals on the last flight from the UK were held up at passport control.

Tom Nuttall, the Berlin correspondent for The Economist, was among those on board. In a series of tweets he described how authorities allowed German citizens to go through but held back non-Germans.

Legal residents were eventually allowed to leave the airport and required to get tested later, while non-residents reportedly had to spend the night in the airport and get tested in the morning. Those without a negative test were "told they have to return to the UK," he said.

Journalist Patrick Kingsley, a correspondent for the The New York Times who was also on the flight ,said authorities let German citizens through without a test.

About 120 passengers from Britain had to spend the night in a transit area of Frankfurt Airport. A further 50 did likewise Munich.

In Stuttgart, passengers on the last plane from the UK were taken to the airport's testing center in small groups. Those who received a negative test were allowed to retrieve their luggage, but are still required to quarantine at their final destination.

What do we know about the new strain?

Last week, British health officials identified a new coronavirus strain, with initial findings pointing to it being more contagious than other variants.

The strain does not lead to an increase in cases of severe illness, and does not cause more serious side effects.

Researchers are still evaluating whether the strain will be more or less receptive to the vaccines currently being rolled out.

Although no final conclusions have been made, health authorities have said it is unlikely that the mutation will hamper the effectiveness of the vaccines.

rs/rt (AFP, dpa)