ALL visitors to the UK face having to undergo two Covid tests as the UK Government attempts to strengthen the country’s borders against variant strains of the virus.
Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary for England, is expected to set out details of the new proposed measure in a Commons statement this afternoon.
People isolating at home will be told they must get a test two and eight days into their 10-day quarantine period.
Whitehall’s Department of Health and Social Care said the move was designed to provide a “further level of protection” enabling the authorities to track new cases more effectively.
It comes after it was confirmed last week that UK nationals returning from 33 “red-list” countries to England would be required to quarantine in closely monitored Government-designated hotels, where they would have to take two tests; although no contracts have yet been signed with accommodation providers.
Last week, Nicola Sturgeon announced that a “comprehensive” system of “managed quarantine” would be imposed on people travelling directly to Scotland to “guard against” imports of new Covid-19 variants, going further than the UK Government’s red-list programme. Details of the scheme could come as early as today.
Discussions involving both governments are on-going with hotels with each scheme due to come into force on Monday.
George Eustice, the UK Government’s Environment Secretary, said officials remained confident the hotel quarantine plan would be up and running next week.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “My understanding is that officials in the Department for Health are in discussion with a range of operators about procuring those hotels, and they are confident that they will get the capacity needed for the policy to start next week.”
It has been suggested ministers are close to signing up a series of hotels near Heathrow and were optimistic of agreeing deals with others around Manchester, Gatwick, Birmingham and London City airports.
The extra testing burden – with the cost expected to fall on travellers – has added to concerns in the travel industry.
Paul Charles, from The PC Agency travel consultants and the Quash Quarantine campaign, told Today: “It’s quite clear we have entered a much tougher new phase where the Government wants to squeeze border entry and exit completely by adding these layers of complexity.”
If passengers had to pay for three tests – including one pre-departure – that would “obviously kill off travel, that will stop anybody really, even if they have to make an essential trip,” he added.
Mr Charles suggested the furlough scheme would have to be extended to protect the travel industry.
Derek Jones, chief executive of luxury travel company Kuoni, welcomed the plan to test arriving travellers but called for it to coincide with an easing of mandatory self-isolation requirements.
He explained: “A robust testing regime is the way to open up travel again but it has to replace or at least shorten quarantine. That’s the way to get travel moving again.”
The move comes as scientists sought to reassure the public that vaccines remained effective despite concerns about the Oxford/AstraZeneca jab’s performance against the South African variant.
South Africa has suspended use of that vaccine after a preliminary trial suggested it offered a reduced level of protection against infection and mild illness from the variant.
Professor Andrew Pollard, director of the Oxford Vaccine Group, said: “In many ways, it’s exactly what we would have expected because the virus is introducing mutations, as we’ve discussed before, to allow it to still transmit in populations where there’s some immunity.
“And we already knew in South Africa that the virus was able to cause mild infections in people who were infected earlier last year.
“So, that is not surprising then that with vaccines, also with mild infection, it’s going to be possible to see that.”
But he stressed vaccines were “still preventing severe disease and death”.
On Monday, Professor Jonathan Van-Tam, England’s Deputy Chief Medical Officer, stressed the importance of getting a jab because the vaccines were effective against the strains circulating in the UK and the South African variant was unlikely to become dominant.
He said that it was possible people would need booster jabs as the vaccines were updated to deal with new variants and that there were “a lot of steps behind the scenes” to ensure that could happen.
Meanwhile, early research by The Alan Turing Institute and Oxford University suggests that the NHS Covid-19 app has so far prevented 600,000 cases.