Getting to grips with . . .

Does UK border relaxation risk spread of new Covid variants?

Ministers insist new quarantine-free rules for US and EU travellers are safe

Allowing US and EU tourists into the UK without quarantine will leave the country vulnerable to new Delta-like Covid variants, Labour has warned.

The government yesterday announced plans to relax self-isolation rules from 4am on 2 August for fully vaccinated travellers arriving from North America and the whole of the bloc with the exception of France.

But while the border relaxation has been welcomed by the travel industry, shadow transport secretary Jim McMahon is demanding that Downing Street show evidence that the move will not lead to another new coronavirus variant running “rampant through the country” and damaging “the effort of the British public”.

The i news site’s Hugo Gye has also voiced reservations, arguing that “international travel is the single biggest source of danger when it comes to fending off the nightmare scenario of a fourth lockdown”. 

“Few countries sequence anything like as many coronavirus infections as the UK: if we are truly unlucky, a new, vaccine-resistant variant could slip through the national defences before it has even been identified,” Gye writes. 

The decision was made by cabinet ministers on the Covid-19 Operations (Covid-O) Committee, “in defiance” of warnings from senior officials that the move posed a “clear public health risk”, especially as some travellers will have had coronavirus vaccines that are not approved in the UK, reports The Times.

Under the new rules, passengers who have received jabs authorised by the European Medicines Agency (EMA) or the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will be allowed through the border without having to quarantine.

The approved vaccines do not include the Chinese Sinopharm vaccine used in Hungary, but The Times says “more than a million” people in the EU member country who have had the jab have been issued with a valid EU travel pass.

Although Sinopharm-vaccinated arrivals will still be expected to self-isolate in the UK, “there are concerns that airlines may fail to check the specific vaccine listed on the travel pass”, the paper continues. And “there are also concerns that paper vaccine certificates issued in the United States could be falsified”. 

Professor Christina Pagel, director of the clinical operational research unit at University College London, told The Guardian: “We should be taking advantage of the fact that we are an island and having much more control over potential new variants coming in.”

Given that even the fully vaccinated can catch and pass on the virus, “a variant that emerges anywhere will spread everywhere”, she added.

But fellow expert Professor Ravi Gupta, a clinical microbiologist at the University of Cambridge, told the paper that there were “much more worrying conditions here in the UK” for variants that could escape existing vaccines.

This view is shared by Paul Hunter, professor of medicine at the University of East Anglia, who argues that the UK has recently “been more of a risk to others than they have been to us” - and that travel restrictions would only delay, rather than prevent, the arrival of a new variant.

Even Australia, which has imposed border closures and mandatory hotel quarantines, has seen its strong Covid defences breached by the Delta variant.

In an article for USA Today earlier this year, microbiologist Alex Berezow and chemist Josh Bloom went as far as arguing that border closures were a “distraction” from better methods of disease control such as vaccination, masks and social distancing.

Evolutionary pressure that pushes microbes to become more contagious “happens everywhere”, the two experts wrote, so even if a variant such as Delta can be prevented from entering a country, “a more infectious variant of coronavirus will almost certainly evolve there on its own”.

As the various theories are put to the test in countries worldwide, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps has insisted that opening up the UK border is safe. 

Announcing the rule change last night, he said: “We will of course continue to be guided by the latest scientific data, but thanks to our world-leading domestic vaccination programme, we’re able to look to the future and start to rebuild key transatlantic routes with the US while further cementing ties with our European neighbours.” 

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