Foreign minister: Just don't travel over the Christmas break

Foreign minister Urmas Reinsalu (Isamaa).
Foreign minister Urmas Reinsalu (Isamaa). Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

Foreign minister Urmas Reinsalu (Isamaa) has doubled down on calls to avoid traveling to the United Kingdom and elsewhere, as Christmas week begins and after a particularly contagious strain of COVID-19 has been reported rampant in Britain.

Reinsalu hit out at a lack of coordination by the EU, saying that little seemed to have been learned from the spring coronavirus wave.

Speaking at a press conference Monday following an announcement Sunday night that Estonia, together with Latvia, Lithuania and several other EU countries, would halt flight links with the U.K. following reports that a much more potent – in terms of infectiousness – strain of COVID-19 had been found in that country and was ravaging London and the South-East in particular.

Reinsalu: Little seems to have been learned from spring COVID-19 wave

"The signature tune has been relatively similar," Reinsalu said, qualifying his words by adding that health issues are a matter for member states under the EU treaties.

Estonia made its decision after consulting with the other two Baltic States, and ahead of many other EU countries, though the list of nations grounding flight links with the U.K. continues to grow, with Ireland joining the list on Monday.

Reinsalu added that: "Estonia considers it necessary to emphasize that in addition to the expert level, it is also necessary to hold consultations at the political level. This has been very much lacking, there is nothing more to say[than that]."

A Ryanair flight from London which touched down in Tallinn Monday morning, after the flight restriction came into force midnight Sunday, had been let through on the grounds that the announcement had not reached the airline in time, Reinsalu said, but no more direct flights from the U.K. to Estonia would be happened between now and year-end, he said.

Estonia early adopter of U.K. flight ban, more than half of EU states now on board

Reinsalu also emphasized a need to react quickly and decisively, something which supranational organizations – likely an oblique reference to the EU – had not yet accomplished, he said.

In addition to consulting with Latvia and Lithuania closely, Estonia has also been cooperating on the flights issue with Finland and Poland, though the latter as yet has not blocked in-bound flights from the U.K.

At the time of the press conference, 17 of the EU 27 nations had installed flight bans, over differing time-scales, at a time when last-ditch Brexit talks had been foundering amid fears of a no-deal exit.

France has additionally closed off cross-channel freight transit and Eurotunnel traffic.

Reinsalu also reiterated a foreign ministry plea for Estonian citizens to avoid international travel of all kinds, amid soaring COVID-19 rates.

Reinsalu noted that restrictions can be quickly implemented or changed, leading to those traveling getting trapped – a predicament close to 40 Estonian citizens or residents wanting to return home have reportedly found themselves in after Estonia's own imposition Sunday night.

Reinsalu said earlier on Monday that no special flight would as things stand be laid on to convey these individuals home.

Reinsalu: Travellers to U.K. would not be able to do much during lock-down in any case

This, along with public health considerations, was reason enough not to travel internationally, Reinsalu said, adding with reference to the U.K. specifically that restrictions in that country have removed all scope for movement, shopping and leisure in many areas in any case.

"In theory, it may be possible to enter the country, but it is practically impossible to move around there," he said.

London and the South-East, the location of several of the U.K.'s major airports, sees the highest-level (tier 4) coronavirus restrictions, which include a movement bar out of or into that region.

Scotland has its own five-tier system of restrictions, with the majority of the population falling in tier 3, meaning travel bans outside the region for all but the most essential reasons. Entertainment establishments may only open until 6 p.m. and may not serve alcohol, in tier 3 zones.

Restrictions less impactful at a time when many not working

Urmas Reinsalu noted the festive season as requiring stricter restrictions due to both the increased likelihood of mobility and a lessened impact on work schedules at a time when many people are off work in any case.

An expert assessment of the latest, new coronavirus strain detected in the U.K. and potential effects on or incidence in Estonia is due from the government's coronavirus scientific council on Tuesday, Reinsalu added. Whether further restrictions for the Christmas and New Year's break are in the offing may be clearer then, he said.

Professor Irja Lutsar, head of the council, said Monday that the new strain has not been found in Estonia as yet, adding that mapping mutations and varieties had not been as extensive as in some other countries.


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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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