French Citizens Largely Barred From Traveling to U.K. as Omicron Cases Continue to Spread

The French government announced Thursday it would restrict travel to and from the United Kingdom, citing the rapidly spreading COVID-19 Omicron variant.

French government spokesman Gabriel Attal told news channel BFMTV that, whether for business or tourism, all travelers coming into France from the U.K. will need a negative COVID-19 test less than 24 hours old, and will need to isolate for two days.

The new measures will take effect on Saturday. According to a statement from French Prime Minister Jean Castex, they apply to vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals.

Only non-French people and French citizens with "an urgent health or legal reason" will be allowed to travel from France to the U.K.

EU citizens and long-term residents will still be able to enter France via the U.K. Besides groups of people such as diplomats and health care workers, other non-EU travelers will be barred from entering the country.

Some critics of the measure wondered whether the new restrictions are politically motivated.

Max Blain, a spokesman for British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, said bans such as these "wouldn't be effective or proportionate," adding that Johnson does not have any plans to implement a similar measure against France.

Paris, France, COVID-19
The French government announced it would put restrictions on people traveling to and from the United Kingdom. Above, people wearing face masks to protect against COVID-19 cross the Trocadero Plaza in Paris on December 15, 2021. Michel Euler/AP Photo

Another puzzling element of the new French rules: Those targeting Britain are softer than those targeting South Africa, even though Britain's infection numbers are currently higher. All people arriving from South Africa must quarantine for 10 days, while those coming from Britain must quarantine for 48 hours. There was no immediate explanation for why.

Londoner Derek Lubner made it to Paris on Thursday just ahead of the deadline. "It's crazy. [Omicron] is already spreading in France," he told the Associated Press at the Gare du Nord train station. "I mean I understand they need to protect the people but it's here. What can you do? And it's gonna hurt people. It hurts people, it hurts tourists, it hurts your local businesses."

U.K. travel industry officials expressed dismay at the French restrictions, demanding government help for battered businesses.

"The winter sports and school travel markets are particularly exposed, and the government must now bring forward a support package if we are not to see company failures and job losses," said Mark Tanzer, chief executive of travel and trade association Abta.

There are several hundred flights scheduled between Britain and France over the week leading up to Christmas, according to aviation analytics firm Cirium. That's the equivalent of more than 90,000 seats, though the new restrictions mean they are likely to be largely empty.

The U.K. on Wednesday recorded its highest number of confirmed new COVID-19 infections since the pandemic began, and England's chief medical officer warned the situation is likely to get worse as the Omicron variant drives a new wave of illness during the Christmas holidays.

The abrupt move comes after weeks of political tensions between France and Britain over post-Brexit fishing rights and how to deal with migration in dangerous small boats across the English Channel.

It also comes as France's government is desperately trying to avoid a new lockdown or stricter measures that would hurt the economy and cloud President Emmanuel Macron's expected campaign for the April presidential election.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Paris, France, COVID test
People traveling from the U.K. to France will need to provide a negative COVID-19 test and will be required to quarantine for two days. Above, a medical worker administers a nasal swab to a patient at a COVID-19 testing center on December 16, 2021, in Paris. Photo by Chesnot/Getty Images