Dueling U.S., U.K. travel restrictions and advisories strain transatlantic relations

Travel restrictions are adding strain to the so-called "special relationship" between the United States and Britain.

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By Yuliya Talmazan

LONDON — Amid a worsening coronavirus epidemic, the U.S. and the U.K. engaged in a political tit for tat Sunday after Britain advised its citizens against all but essential travel to the U.S. hours after the White House announced it would expand a European travel ban to include the United Kingdom and Ireland.

With 1,140 people testing positive for the virus, 21 dead and up to 10,000 suspected cases, the British government has called for a national effort to fight the spread of the epidemic similar to the one which helped the country through the Second World War.

"Our generation has never been tested like this," health minister Matt Hancock wrote in right-leaning newspaper The Sunday Telegraph, calling the coronavirus "the biggest public health emergency in a generation."

But travel restrictions imposed by the U.S. are adding more strain to the so-called "special relationship" between the United States and Britain.

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The U.K. and Ireland were initially left off the list when President Donald Trump banned nationals from 26 countries in Europe, where the growing pandemic has shifted, from coming to the U.S. earlier this week. But on Saturday night, Vice President Mike Pence confirmed that the ban will be extended to include the two nations as of Tuesday morning.

The initial exclusion of the U.K. was praised by Brexit supporters as evidence that the bilateral relationship between the two nations was thriving.

“The UK is now being treated as an independent country,” tweeted one of Trump’s most famous supporters in the U.K., Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage.

The transatlantic alliance, nurtured by presidents and prime ministers for decades, has endured some of its toughest tests since President Donald Trump took office in 2016.

With economic uncertainty hanging over Britain after its departure from the European Union, a process known as Brexit, Prime Minister Boris Johnson needs the U.K.'s old ally more than ever to forge a new free trade deal.

But the news of the U.K. inclusion on the travel ban seems to have caught British authorities off guard.

“This is a decision for the U.S.,” U.K.’s foreign office said in a statement Sunday. It was followed by a directive from the U.K.'s Foreign Office advising against all but essential travel to the whole of America “due to restrictions put in place by the U.S. government.”

Downing Street said Trump and Johnson spoke on the phone Saturday night to discuss the pandemic, “agreeing on the importance of international coordination,” without weighing in on the travel ban or whether the U.K .was given any advance warning about now being included in it.

Earlier this week, Britain stepped up its response to the outbreak, moving to the so-called "delay" phase, with Johnson calling coronavirus “the worst public health crisis for a generation” and warning families they would "lose loved ones before their time.”

But some have criticized his government for not implementing more of the measures taken in other European countries, such as increasing social isolation, shutting schools and banning mass gatherings.

On Sunday, the British government looked poised to escalate its efforts, saying it will introduce powers to force people into quarantine if necessary and would in the days ahead advise all people aged over 70 to self-isolate.

‘Panic and confusion’

The ban on travel from the U.K. and Ireland left many Americans left scrambling to get home.

Despite assurances from Vice President Pence that U.S. citizens in either country could still get home, many were caught off guard.

Americans Chyna Barrett and Ethan Smith spent two days in limbo and an extra $1,000 to get home to San Francisco, California after they heard about the European ban while on vacation in Portugal. They heard about the U.K. being added to the ban when they got to London.

“It’s a massive relief,” Barrett, 22, told NBC News at Heathrow Airport Saturday after they secured their flights home.

“I am not sure if I agree with the bans or not, but I feel as though the sudden announcements caused a lot of panic and confusion in a lot of travelers. It’s a global pandemic and not limited to any one place,” the operations coordinator added.

But not everyone is eager to leave.

Sarah Philpott, who is on a study abroad program in London from Hollins University in Virginia, said she is staying put in the U.K., awaiting further instructions from her school.

She called the extension of the European travel ban to the U.K. “unnecessary.”

“I think every country is doing their best,” Philpott, 21, said. “I know most people are not going to travel needlessly, and I think it’s causing a lot of havoc to ban all of Europe when it’s not like all of Europe has many cases.”

Alex Holmes and Nikolai Miller contributed.