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COVID-19: Ireland, Italy, Belgium and Netherlands ban flights from UK

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A number of European countries have banned, or are planning to ban, travel from the UK to prevent the spread of a more infectious coronavirus variant.

The Netherlands and Belgium have halted flights, with Italy to follow suit. Trains to Belgium are also suspended.

Ireland is to restrict flights and ferries arriving after midnight (23:00 GMT) on Sunday. Germany will also stop flights from the UK from midnight.

The new variant has spread quickly in London and south-east England.

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Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Saturday (19 December) introduced a new tier four level of restrictions, scrapping a planned relaxation of rules over the Christmas period for millions of people.

Top health officials said that there was no evidence the new variant was more deadly, or would react differently to vaccines, but it was proving to be up to 70% more transmissible.

Which countries have acted and how?

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Within hours of the UK announcement on Saturday, the Netherlands said it would ban all passenger flights from the UK from 6h (5h GMT) on Sunday until 1 January.

Pending "greater clarity" on the situation in the UK, the Dutch government said that further "risk of the new virus strain being introduced to the Netherlands should be minimised as much as possible".

The country on Sunday reported a daily increase of more than 13,000 cases - a new record, despite tough lockdown measures being applied on 14 December.

Belgium is suspending flights and train arrivals from the UK from midnight on Sunday. Prime Minister Alexander De Croo told Belgian television channel VRT the ban would be in place for at least 24 hours as a "precautionary measure", adding "we will see later if we need additional measures".

In Ireland, urgent government talks were held on Sunday. Flights and ferries arriving from the UK will be restricted from midnight. The measures are expected to remain in place for an initial 48 hours before being reviewed.

In Germany, an order from the ministry of transport said planes from the UK would not be allowed to land after midnight on Sunday, although cargo would be an exception. Health Minister Jens Spahn said the UK variant had not yet been detected in Germany.

In France, news channel BFMTV reported that the government was "seriously" considering suspending flights and trains from the UK, and the government was "looking for European co-ordination".

"A decision will be announced during the day," the channel said.

Spanish Foreign Minister Arancha González said Spain also wanted a co-ordinated EU decision on the matter.

Austria is also planning a ban on flights from the UK, with details currently being worked out, Austrian media reported. Bulgaria has suspended flights to and from the UK from midnight.

What is the new variant?

In the UK, it was first identified in the middle of October from a sample taken in September.

Dr Catherine Smallwood, of WHO Europe, said that as of 20 December, the numbers in those countries were small, nine in Denmark and one each in the other two nations. But she said other countries had notified WHO of other variants "that also carry some of the genetic changes seen in the UK variant".

Coronavirus
The initial coronavirus has a lower "viral load", which makes it slower to be passed on

The new UK variant has been shown to spread faster than the original virus - up to 70% more transmissible based on modelling figures - but scientific details on the genetic changes, and how they could affect the behaviour of Covid-19, remain unclear.

Although there is no indication the variant will be more resistant to already-developed vaccines, the mutation does involve the spike protein of the virus.

This is the part that helps it infect cells - and also the part the vaccines have been designed to target. So although scientific experts have warned against an alarmist response, they also say it is essential to track the variant and try to stay ahead of the virus.

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Belgium

Clashes break out in Brussels in protests over coronavirus restrictions

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Police and protesters clashed in the streets of Brussels on Sunday (21 November) in demonstrations over government-imposed COVID-19 restrictions, with police firing water cannon and tear gas at demonstrators throwing rocks and smoke bombs, witnesses said, write Christian Levaux, Johnny Cotton and Sabine Siebold, Reuters.

About 35,000 people took part in demonstrations, police said, which began peacefully before violence broke out.

Protesters wearing black hoods threw stones at police as they advanced with water cannon at the main junction in front of the European Union Commission headquarters, Reuters journalists said.

Facing up to the police lines, the protesters held hands and chanted "freedom". One protester was carrying a placard reading "when tyranny becomes law, rebellion becomes duty".

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Police forces stand guard as people protest against coronavirus disease (COVID-19) measures near the European Commission in Brussels, Belgium November 21, 2021. REUTERS/Johanna Geron

Protesters also threw smoke bombs and fireworks, the newspaper Le Soir reported. The situation calmed down later, police said.

Belgium tightened its coronavirus restrictions on Wednesday (17 November), mandating wider use of masks and enforcing work from home, as cases rose in the country's fourth COVID-19 wave. Read more.

There have been 1,581,500 infections and 26,568 coronavirus-related deaths reported in the country of 11.7 million people since the pandemic began. Infections are increasing again, with 13,826 new cases reported on average each day.

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Violence has also broken out in anti-restriction protests in Belgium's neighbour the Netherlands in recent days. On Friday, police in Rotterdam opened fire on a crowd.

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Belgium

'When the Smurfs meet Monkey King'

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'When the Smurfs meet Monkey King' is a children's art exhibition celebrating the 50th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and Belgium.

The successful art exhibition celebrating the 50th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and Belgium in La Louvière, the birthplace of Surrealism in Belgium that ended on 24 October gave the opportunity to nearly 300 local primary and middle school students in just one week to depict their vision of friendship between China and Belgium.

On 17 October, during the opening ceremony, Françoise Ghiot, Laurent Wimlot, aldermen of La Louvière, and their guests from China and Belgium attended the event. Counsellor Yang Qing, wife of the Chinese Ambassador to Belgium, also recorded a video for the inauguration of the event.

Counsellor Yang Qing said in her speech that she admired the exhibition held in La Louvière. Using pure and innocent artistic perspective, extraordinary creativity and imagination, the children have well defined the cultural elements of both countries. Celebrating the 50th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and Belgium with children’s eyes, sincere feelings, those future ambassadors of friendship have expressed their visions of a better collaborative future between the two nations.

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Ghiot said in her speech that she was very happy on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and Belgium to see children’s paintings from China. The art exhibition opened a skylight of artistic exchange for local children.

This children's art exhibition was jointly curated by the city of La Louvière, the Nardone Gallery, and Yellow Vitamines. Through the LPGA (Little Painter Global International Art Exhibition), covering 40 cities and 500 aesthetic education training institutions in China, 5000 children’s work were collected and 200 were finally selected to focus on Belgium. With the innocent help of children's brushes, imagination and understanding, art and culture provided an ideal medium to understanding differences and strengthening the bond between China and Belgium.

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Animal welfare

Commission carries out unannounced inspections in the animal health sector in Belgium

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The European Commission is conducting unannounced inspections at the premises of a pharmaceutical company active in animal health in Belgium.

The Commission has concerns that the inspected company may have infringed the EU antitrust rules that prohibit the abuse of a dominant position. The Commission officials were accompanied by their counterparts from the Belgian competition authority.

Unannounced inspections are a preliminary investigatory step into suspected anti-competitive practices. The fact that the Commission carries out such inspections does not mean that the companies are being found guilty of anti-competitive behaviour nor does it prejudge the outcome of the investigation itself.

The Commission fully respects the rights of defence in its antitrust proceedings, in particular the right of companies to be heard.

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The inspections are conducted in compliance with all coronavirus health and safety protocols to ensure the security of those involved.

There is no legal deadline to complete inquiries into anti-competitive conduct. Their duration depends on a number of factors, including the complexity of each case, the extent to which the companies concerned co-operate with the Commission and the exercise of the rights of defence.

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