Ministers have been accused of ‘over-promising’ about the prospects for summer holidays abroad as Labour demands even tougher border measures to combat the threat from coronavirus variants.
Keir Starmer, Labour MPs, and the Welsh First Minister all raised concerns about the protections in place against importing new strains of the disease.
Fears have been raised after cases of a Brazil variant that could potentially sidestep current vaccines were detected in the UK.
Boris Johnson played down alarm that his ‘roadmap’ for easing lockdown could be derailed today, and insisted schools in England will go back from March 8 as planned. He rejected the idea quarantine hotels had been introduced too late, and said there was a ‘very tough regime’ in place.
But Sir Keir said the arrangements were still not enough, while Home Affairs Committee chair Yvette Cooper pointed to the suggestion that non-essential international travel could be permitted again from mid-May.
‘There is a concern that the Government is raising expectations about summer holidays that they may not be able to meet,’ the Labour MP said.
Ministers have been accused of ‘over-promising’ about the prospects for summer holidays abroad. PIctured, Heathrow Airport
Keir Starmer (right) has raised concerns about the protections in place against importing new strains of the disease. Boris Johnson insisted the Brazil variant should not affect the roadmap
A huge hunt is under way today after health officials admitted they do not know the identity of one of the people infected with the worrying strain.
Covid rules for UK arrivals from Brazil explained
The British Government imposed a travel ban on arrivals coming into the UK from Brazil as well as Central American state of Panama and the former Portuguese colony of Cape Verde on January 15 following ‘concerns’ about the mutant Brazilian variant.
However, any British and Irish nationals and third country nationals with residence rights in the UK arriving in England from Brazil have been required to quarantine in a hotel since February 15.
MPs have been told that more than 100 people a day are going into the hotels at London Heathrow Airport, where they must stay for 10 days at a cost of £1,750 for the accommodation on risk of criminal prosecution.
Current rules state:
- You cannot enter the UK if you’ve been in or through a country on the banned travel list (known as the ‘red list’) in the last 10 days, unless you’re British, Irish or you have the right to live in the UK
- You must either quarantine where you’re staying or in a managed quarantine hotel for 10 days
- What you need to do depends on where you travel in the 10 days before you arrive – if you travel in or through a country on the banned travel list within 10 days, you must stay managed quarantine hotel; if not, you can quarantine at home
- You need to provide your journey and contact details in the 48 hours before you arrive in the UK. You must do this by completing the online passenger locator form
- You’ll need to show proof that you’ve completed the form when you arrive at the UK border as well as proof of a negative PCR or antigen test taken three days before departure
- You could be fined £500 when you arrive at the border if you cannot provide proof that you have had a negative coronavirus test
- You do not need a test if you’re travelling within the UK, the Isle of Man, Jersey and Guernsey; from Ireland; from Ascension, Falkland Islands or St Helena; and children under 11 do not need a test
- After arriving at a quarantine hotel you will be tested on days two and eight of your stay using a PCR test self-administered in your room
- In Scotland, arrivals from all international destinations have to quarantine, even if they are not on the red list.
In all six cases of the P.1 variant first detected in the Amazonian city of Manaus have been confirmed in Britain – three in England and three in Scotland.
Two were tracked to South Gloucestershire but the third English case has not been located and could be anywhere in the nation because they failed to fill in personal details when they were tested for Covid.
Public Health England has said it is working with the postal service try and track where the kit had been sent.
On a visit to a school in Stoke-on-Trent today, Mr Johnson denied that the country was paying the price for being slow to implement tough controls such as quarantine hotels, saying ‘as fast as we could’ to bring in a ‘very tough regime’.
He said a ‘massive effort’ was under way to prevent new coronavirus variants spreading.
‘If you look at what we have done in the case of the South African variant, a massive effort went in there,’ he said.
‘The same is going on now to contain any spread of the Brazilian variant.’
Mr Johnson said there was ‘no reason not to think that our vaccines are effective against these variants of concern at the present time’, saying Public Health England ‘don’t think that there is a threat to the wider public’.
And pushed on whether the reopening of society will need to be delayed further, he said the current timetable was ‘cautious’ and schools will be back up and running as planned from March 8. On the roadmap schedule, he said: ‘We don’t think there is any reason on this basis to change that now.’
Experts believe that the Brazil strain can sidestep existing antibodies to some degree, potentially raising questions about the effectiveness of current jabs.
Earlier, vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi appealed for anyone who was tested on February 12 or 13 and has not received a result, or had an incomplete test registration card, to come forward.
It is possible the individual may not even know they were ill, with speculation it was either a home testing kit or part of ‘surge’ screening.
Scientists have raised alarm that if the variant takes hold in the UK it could ‘slow things down’ in the fight to escape lockdown restrictions as it makes vaccines ‘so much less potent’.
And the government is facing questions over why it did not act earlier to tighten up the borders – with warnings that foreign holidays will not be possible this summer.
One of the P1 cases, found in South Gloucestershire, flew into London from Brazil via Zurich on February 10 – only five days before arrivals from there became required to quarantine in a hotel for ten nights.
Officials are also tracking down 136 passengers on Swiss Air flight, LX318 travelling from Sao Paulo, through Zurich, and landing in Heathrow on February 10.
Surge testing will take place in South Gloucestershire after cases of the Manaus variant were discovered. Three cases of the variant have been found in North East Scotland after flying into Aberdeen from Brazil via Paris and London
When the Brazilian variant first emerged and how traveller who brought it to the UK missing hotel quarantine scheme by just five days
November 18 – UK Government announces its ‘red list’ of countries from which travel is banned. This includes Brazil due to the large number of cases there.
December – The city of Manaus, deep in the Brazilian Amazon, experiences a fresh wave of Covid cases. These are later linked to the new ‘Brazilian variant’.
January 10 – Japan announces the detection of the new variant – P.1 – in travellers from Brazil and reports it to the World Health Organisation.
22 – Germany is the first European country to identify cases of the variant; followed by Italy on the 25th, and the Netherlands on the 29th.
25 – Brazilian variant is detected in the USA.
February 4 – Cases identified in France, followed by Portugal on the 11th and Ireland on the 19th.
5 – UK Government confirms a scheme for mandatory hotel quarantine that will be introduced from February 15. Brazil is one of the countries on the red list.
10 – One individual arrives in London from Brazil via Zurich. They later test positive for the Brazil variant and infect one other person in their household.
15 – UK hotel quarantine scheme launches, five days after this first confirmed cases arrived.
28 – UK health officials announce that six cases of the Brazilian variant have been identified, three in England and three in Scotland. Two South Gloucestershire cases flew into London from Zurich on February 10 – five days before the hotel quarantine scheme started.
The missing case had their test processed on February 14 – meaning that it is likely they took it a day or possibly two earlier.
Sir Keir said the discovery of the Brazilian coronavirus variant in the UK showed the Government has not ‘secured our borders in the way we should have done’.
Speaking at a virtual meeting with Welsh businesses to mark St David’s Day, Mr Starmer said: ‘It demonstrates the slowness of the Government to close off even the major routes, but also the unwillingness to confront the fact that the virus doesn’t travel by direct flights.
‘We know from last summer that a lot of virus came in from countries where it didn’t originate in, but people were coming indirect, and that’s the way people travel.
‘I still think we haven’t secured our borders in the way we should have done, and the sooner that’s done the better.’
Wales First Minister Mark Drakeford said he had ‘worries’ about Boris Johnson’s comments that international travel could return in May and that he would instead ‘build the walls higher for now’ to prevent bringing in coronavirus variants to the UK.
Mr Drakeford told a virtual meeting with Welsh businesses and Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer: ‘It worries me hugely to hear the Prime Minister say that he intends to reopen international travel in May of this year.
‘Our September in Wales was made far more difficult by the fact that we had a big importation of the virus from France, Spain, Greece, Bulgaria, Turkey. Every day I will be reading of new outbreaks of people who have gone away, caught the virus and brought it back with them.
‘If ever there was a year to be staying at home and to be enjoying all the fantastic things Wales has to offer, this must be it.
‘I would build the walls higher for now against the risk that we would bring into this country the variants that could be brewing in any part of the world, and could then put at risk all the careful work we have done to try and keep Wales safe.’
Yvette Cooper, home affairs select committee chair, said stronger action was needed by the Government to prevent other more dangerous variants arriving in the UK.
‘We need to look at how these cases have arrived in the country in the first place in order to prevent others doing so,’ the Labour MP told Today.
‘These cases seem to have arrived a month after the Brazil variant was first identified and we were raising with the Government the need for stronger action.’
She said there were obvious ‘gaps’ in the system and the Government should be ‘learning lessons’ from countries such as South Korea and New Zealand, which have extra precautions such as testing and transport home from airports.
Former health secretary Jeremy Hunt said the discovery of six cases of the Brazilian P1 variant of the coronavirus in the UK showed the need for tighter controls.
‘Absolutely we have got to look at what has gone wrong,’ he told BBC Radio 4’s The World at One programme.
Mr Johnson said there was ‘no reason not to think that our vaccines are effective against these variants of concern at the present time’
‘It shows that it needs to be tightened up still further because if we are going to protect the road map out of lockdown then the name of the game is going to be stop new variants coming in, some of which may end up being immune to the new vaccines.
‘Where we need to get to is a much, much more thorough combination of test and trace and genetic sequencing so we are not just testing the people who have been near someone who tested positive, but we also are working out where the original infection happened and which variant it is.
‘You can only do that if you bring the cases right down.’
Critics pointed to the Government’s decision to delay hotel quarantine, which began last month to catch mutant strains, accusing ministers of ‘dithering’ for a year on the policy.
The Brazilian city that thought 75% of its population was protected with antibodies before second wave ‘fueled by mutant strain’
Brazil has been in the grip of a second wave despite the fact that the variant emerged in a population that was already approaching herd immunity and should have been protected.
Scientists fear that coronavirus outbreaks in Manaus, where the Brazilian variant emerged, may be able to dodge vaccine-triggered immunity.
Research published last year suggested that around 75 per cent of the population of Manaus, located in the heart of the Amazon rain forest, was thought to have been infected by the virus when it first spread across the globe.
This should have sparked ‘herd immunity’, scientists said. Typically, if such large share of a population has been infected previously, those people will be immune and prevent the virus from spreading.
But officials fear that the new strain could cause reinfection following an unexpected surge of new cases in Brazil last month.
This may have put evolutionary pressure on the regular Covid strain to adapt to be able to slip past natural immunity to the original version, according to Professor Wendy Barclay, a top virologist at Imperial College London.
After the variant appeared in December, cases spiked again, indicating its mutations may be able to evade immune system antibodies that were developed in response to previous infections.
Scientists say this could make the vaccine less effective because they rely on the same types of antibodies, and were designed based on the first virus identified in Wuhan, China, which did not have mutations present in the new variants.
Researchers say Manaus is particularly vulnerable to Covid because it has high levels of social deprivation, with workers living in crowded, multi-generational housing. It is also a free-trade zone and one of Brazil’s largest exporter cities, with frequent traffic from Europe and Asia.
Because the virus naturally mutates as it jumps between people, Manaus provided the perfect breeding ground for the virus to evolve.
In Manaus, there have been reports of dead bodies having to be dumped in freezer trucks and patients being flown to different states due to a chronic shortage of oxygen and hospital beds.
Brazil’s capital entered a two-week lockdown on Sunday, joining other states in adopting measures to reduce the spread of coronavirus.
At least eight Brazilian states adopted curfews over the past week due to the rise in deaths from Covid-19 amid a second wave of cases.
Thursday was Brazil’s deadliest day since the beginning of the pandemic, with 1,541 deaths confirmed from the virus. So far 254,000 people have died overall.
Brasilia Governor Ibaneis Rocha decreed the total closure of bars, restaurants, shopping malls and schools until March 15 and prohibited gatherings of people. Sale of alcoholic beverages was prohibited after 8pm.
In the federal district, 85 per cent of hospital beds were occupied on Sunday, according to the local health ministry.
President Jair Bolsonaro again criticised such measures, saying on his Twitter account: ‘The people want to work.’
He threatened on Friday to cut off federal emergency pandemic assistance to states resorting to lockdowns, saying: ‘Governors who close down their states will have to provide for their own emergency aid.’
Paul Charles, the chief executive of travel consultancy The PC Agency, told the Telegraph: ‘This calls into question the border measures the Government claimed were watertight to prevent variants coming in. This is why only testing on arrival is going to be successful in preventing variants coming into the UK.’
The PM’s official spokesman said: ‘We have had for a long time the requirement for people to isolate when they arrive in the UK. We now ensure that people have a negative test before they enter the UK.
‘That is why we had those border policies to try and reduce the number of variants that enter the UK and stop the reimportation of cases. The important thing is that when people arrive they follow the border restrictions.’
The spokesman said that it was very unusual for people not to fill in their details correctly after taking a coronavirus test, as happened in the case of one of those with the Brazilian variant who is now being sought.
‘In a very, very few rare cases individuals do not complete that information, which means that extra action has to be taken to track them down. That is what we are currently doing with regards to the Brazil variant,’ the spokesman said.
The spokesman said schools would still reopen next Monday, including South Gloucestershire where two cases had been found.
‘Schools will reopen on March 8 as we set out in the road map,’ he said.
‘We have deployed the extra surge testing in Gloucestershire to ensure that if there are any other cases in that local area we can identify then and ensure those people are isolated.’
Downing Street indicated that UK officials will discuss the European Union’s plans for ‘vaccine passports’ with counterparts in Brussels.
The European Commission has set out plans for a ‘digital green pass’ which would record vaccination status and test results, and could unlock travel for work and tourism.
The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: ‘We have said that we are looking at the issue of vaccine passports.
‘As you can expect, DfT (the Department for Transport) will work and do speak to countries across the world in terms of how they may look to introduce passports.’
Graham Medley, professor of infectious disease modelling at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and a member of SAGE, warned the nation might need to ‘go backwards’ in terms of relaxing restrictions.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘It is a variant of concern but we are going to be faced with these in the next six months as we move towards relaxing measures – there are going to be challenges on the way – and there is always a risk that we might have to go backwards, and that’s what nobody wants to do is to actually open up and then have to close down again.
‘So monitoring these variants, keeping an eye on in terms of what they actually do – so sequencing, for example, viruses in hospitals – I think is a crucial step to know whether or not this variant and other variants in the future, what impact they’re actually having.’
Asked how worried people should be about the Brazilian variant, Danny Altmann, professor of immunology at Imperial College, told Times Radio: ‘Somewhat worried but not total panic, perhaps.
‘It’s somewhat more worrying than the UK variant, the Kent variant, that we’re used to talking about, because it covers the double whammy, we think, of being more transmissible and somewhat better at evading neutralising antibodies.’
Prof Altmann said the lockdown ‘roadmap’ could be torpedoed if the variant became widespread.
‘The way I think about it is it’s a bit like, and I think about the effect that the Kent variant had on us, it just slowed everything up because suddenly things started to get a little bit worse again, and you know the end seemed a little bit further away,’ he said.
‘When I look at the data on how well this variant gets neutralised, it’s not that all immunity is gone, it’s that the vaccines look so much less potent, so there’ll be more people who have low antibody responses where it can break through and get affected. It all comes back much harder.’