Hundreds of tourists from the United Kingdom have escaped from quarantine at upmarket Swiss ski resort of Verbier this week, violating coronavirus protocols put in place after a new strain was found in Britain, reported AFP.

To curb the spread of the new variant of the coronavirus, Switzerland had on December 21 announced that those who travelled from the UK since December 14 would have to self-isolate for 10 days from the arrival date, according to The Guardian. The British tourists had planned to spend their holiday in the municipality of Bagnes in Canton du Valais, commonly called “Little London”.

Around 200 of over 400 tourists reportedly left the Alpine ski station in the night, Swiss newspaper SonntagsZeitung reported, according to the news agency. “Many of them stayed in quarantine for a day before they set off unnoticed under the cover of darkness,” said Bagnes municipality communications officer Jean-Marc Sandoz, adding that the episode was “the worst week our community has ever experienced”.

Tourists from the United Kingdom usually make up 21% of the clients of the ski resort, voted the best in Switzerland for the last two years, and they arrive after Christmas. The Verbier Tourist Office has been conducting regular crisis cell meetings to try to tackle the ever-changing coronavirus situation.

The absence of the tourists was noticed when several of them failed to answer calls or left meals untouched outside their rooms. Sandoz said that since flights were barred between Switzerland and the UK, it was initially unclear where the British tourists had fled. Some of them later got in touch with hotels to figure out whether they had to pay for the nights they had previously booked.

Switzerland, which has been struggling to contain a surge in Covid-19 cases, last week ordered restaurants, bars, cultural venues, and sports venues to be closed, according to The Independent. It will last till January 22 as “hospitals and healthcare workers have been under extreme pressure for weeks and the festive period increases the risk of an even more rapid rise in cases”, the government’s statement said.

While the UK has recorded 22,95,228 coronavirus cases, including 70,860 deaths so far, Switzerland has registered 4,28,197 infections, with 7,210 deaths, according to the Johns Hopkins University’s coronavirus tracker.

New virus strain

Sweden, Canada and Spain on Saturday became the latest countries to report cases of the more contagious and genetically distinct variant of the coronavirus that was first discovered in Britain. The variant has also been detected in France, Denmark, the Netherlands, Germany and Italy.

More than 50 countries, including India, have imposed travel restrictions on the UK, in an effort to prevent the spread of the new variant. India has suspended flights from the UK till December 31. Some, like France, have imposed total border closures amid widespread disruptions in trade and travel.

The new UK virus variant, which scientists have named “VUI – 202012/01”, includes a genetic mutation in the “spike” protein, which could result in coronavirus spreading more easily between people.

The variant carries 14 defining mutations including seven in the spike protein, which mediates entry of the virus into human cells. This is a relatively large number of changes compared to the many variants in circulation globally. UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has claimed that this was as much as 70% more transmissible than previous versions. But there is currently no evidence that the variant is more likely to cause severe coronavirus infections or that it would render vaccines less effective.

The World Health Organization on December 22 tried to allay the concerns and said the strain could be controlled using existing measures.

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