Ministers today warned there is currently no ‘viable alternative to the 14-day quarantine’ period for travellers returning to the UK from high risk countries.
Boris Johnson is believed to be worried that a second spike in infections in the UK could start within a fortnight after he expressed concerns about a surge in cases across Europe.
The Government announced on Saturday it was banning all non-essential travel to Spain, with tourists returning to Britain having to self-isolate for two weeks, sparking a major diplomatic row with Madrid.
It is now thought that Belgium and Luxembourg could also be removed from the safe travel list as early as tomorrow because of growing outbreaks.
Meanwhile, ministers are said to be closely monitoring the situation in Croatia but a crackdown on that country is not expected to be imminent, according to The Times.
Mr Johnson has insisted the UK must reserve the right to impose travel restrictions at short notice in order to prevent a domestic increase in coronavirus.
But the travel industry is urging the Government to slash the 14 day quarantine period in order to make foreign travel more feasible amid such uncertainty, with the boss of Heathrow Airport suggesting testing at the border could be the answer.
But Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden today poured cold water on the plan as he said at the moment there is not a ‘viable alternative’ to the fortnight in self-isolation.
He said: ‘The challenge we have here is that it’s not the case you can simply test somebody and be sure that they don’t have the disease.’
He added: ‘It can incubate over a period of time, so there’s not a silver bullet of just testing immediately at the border.’
Mr Johnson yesterday warned there are ‘signs of a second wave’ of coronavirus in Europe as he defended the UK’s decision to reimpose quarantine travel rules on Spain.
A senior Government source said the PM was ‘extremely concerned’ by outbreaks ‘bubbling up’, both at home and abroad.
However, the decision to reimpose quarantine on Spain and the threat of the Government doing the same on other European countries is wreaking havoc with the travel industry.
The Government is under growing pressure to reduce the 14 day quarantine period and Mr Johnson has said that ministers are looking at ways to try to mitigate the impact of quarantine.
John Holland-Kaye, the chief executive of Heathrow Airport, has urged the Government to introduce coronavirus tests on arrivals from higher risk countries in order to slash the quarantine period.
He said he believed a testing regime, which would see people tested when they land and then tested again a few days later, could be ‘up and running’ within a fortnight.
Mr Holland Kaye told the Telegraph he believed ministers are ‘very keen’ on a trial at airports.
‘We need to find a way of getting ‘red countries’ opened up again,’ he said. ‘Testing is the only viable way of doing that in the absence of a vaccine.
‘A lot of countries which are ‘red-listed’ have millions of people who don’t have the disease and can’t travel. That’s holding back economic recovery.’
Mr Dowden said he understood the travel industry’s ‘frustration’ with the current quarantine system but that currently there is no ‘viable alternative’.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘I have heard [Mr Holland-Kaye’s] comments and I do understand his frustration and his desire for us not to impose quarantine.
‘If we could avoid imposing quarantine in a way that it was safe to do so then of course we would do that, that is why we keep it under review.’
He added: ‘Of course, we continue to look at all alternatives but we are not at the point where there is a viable alternative to the 14 day quarantine.
‘Indeed, in your question you alluded to the fact that testing even after a week does not catch every one.’
Mr Dowden said that people ‘should continue to book holidays’ but they needed to be ‘aware of that risk’ of quarantine being imposed.
Government advisers have warned it can take a number of days from the moment of infection before tests return a positive result, meaning testing negative on arrival does not mean the passenger will not develop symptoms later on.
But Public Health England and the Department of Health and Social Care are understood to have spoken with travel assistance company Collinson to understand the proposed testing pilot it is developing with Heathrow.
Preliminary modelling from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine suggested 94 per cent of cases would be detected if the quarantine period was cut to eight days and passengers tested negative on the seventh.
Amid criticism from Spain for including lower risk regions in the quarantine restrictions, transport minister Baroness Vere of Norbiton said ways to impose more targeted restrictions were being examined.
‘For the time being, we are taking the approach by country for border measures, but it is the case that it could be that we put them in place for regions in the future,’ she told the House of Lords.
Earlier yesterday Mr Johnson insisted the Government would not hesitate to act if flare-ups of coronavirus occurred in other destinations.
‘I’m afraid you are starting to see in some places the signs of a second wave of the pandemic,’ he warned.
Spain’s Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez has described the restrictions on travel to the country as an ‘error’.
He pointed out that the upsurge in coronavirus cases is focused in two regions, Catalonia and Aragon, adding: ‘In most of Spain, the incidence is very much inferior to even the numbers registered in the United Kingdom.’
Madrid had been urging the UK to exclude the Canaries and Balearics – which include popular tourist resorts on Ibiza, Majorca and Menorca – from its quarantine requirements.
But instead, official travel advice was tightened to bring the islands in line with the Spanish mainland.
Britons make up over a fifth of foreign visitors to Spain, which relies heavily on tourism, and Madrid has said the UK Government gave it no warning that the quarantine move was coming over the weekend.
Labour accused ministers of a ‘chaotic’ response and called for a flexible approach for struggling businesses to ensure that public health measures such as the change in quarantine rules for people returning from Spain do not lead to mass job losses.