Covid: 'Immediate border controls needed' amid South African strain concerns

Video report by ITV News Political Correspondent Dan Hewitt

Pressure is growing for the government to bring in stricter border controls to ensure no more cases of the South African strain of coronavirus are brought into the UK, after it was revealed 105 cases had already been identified in England.

A door-to-door testing blitz of 80,000 people is underway in a number of areas around England, but critics of the UK's comparatively lax border controls are calling for stricter measures to be brought in.

"The government now has to act," said Labour's shadow home secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds.

"It's been too slow and inadequate throughout this pandemic in the measures it's put in place at the border, it must recognise the huge threat from a mutation that emerged somewhere around the world."

He cited a report from the front page of the Times, which indicated "that the government have already been warned in advanced that a geographical approach, a limited approach to the borders, simply isn't going to be enough".

Downing Street denied that Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) called for the closure of UK borders to prevent spread of new coronavirus variants.

The Boris Johnson's spokesman said: "Sage did not actually advise the Government to completely close borders or call for a blanket quarantine on travels.

"They don't put forward recommendations. Their modelling showed a combination of specific policy options, including pre-departure testing and isolation, are effective in mitigating the public health risk."

Nick Thomas-Symonds calls for stricter border controls:

Currently anyone arriving in the UK must both bring proof of a negative coronavirus test with the previous 72 hours, and they must isolate for up to ten days when they arrive.

Foreign arrivals from "red list" countries - nations of South America and southern Africa where new Covid-19 strains have been identified - are banned, but UK residents and nationals can still return.

Last week the government announced it would soon be mandatory for those returnees from to quarantine in hotels upon arrival, but the policy still hasn't been brought in, nor have ministers revealed when it will be.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock told the Commons on Tuesday the aim of the UK in relation to the South Africa variant must be to “stop its spread altogether”. He said: “As with the variant first identified here in the UK there is currently no evidence to suggest it is any more severe but we have to come down on it hard. “Our mission must be to stop its spread altogether and break those chains of transmission.”

Number 10, on Tuesday afternoon, said the government will set out details of hotel quarantining "soon", adding how it "won't hesitate to take any more action if we deem it necessary".

Dr Sarah Jarvis explains why there is concern over the virus mutations

Mr Thomas-Symonds urged the government to bring in stricter controls to block the arrival of any new strain of the virus, which "could threaten the life and hope that has been brought by our vaccine rollout".

Eleven cases of the more infectious South Africa Covid variant have been identified over the past week were in people who had no links to travel, prompting concerns the mutation may be spreading in communities.

Universities minister Michelle Donelan said a hotel quarantine for all countries would be "unfeasible".

She told BBC Breakfast: "We have to be realistic about what we adopt and what we do, and what is deliverable as well, and also targeted in our approach to making sure that we minimise the risk and identifying those countries where we can see the risk.

"So, a blanket policy that Nicola Sturgeon is proposing would not necessarily be as effective as the one that we are suggesting, and also it's much more doable."

She added that Mr Hancock would be updating Parliament "within the week" on plans for hotel quarantining, but rejected suggestions that the Government should have moved to close the borders to stop new variants reaching the UK.

On the Times' report, she said: "The Sage (Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies) advice actually said that it would be probably ineffective to close the borders, which was the same advice that we got at the time from the World Health Organisation."

Here's everything we know so far about the South African variant in the UK:

"We can obviously look back in hindsight with the information now but we didn't have that information at the time. We always based our decisions on the best scientific and medical advice that we could get in this country."

On the prospect of tougher border controls, Linda Bauld, professor of public health at the University of Edinburgh, told BBC Breakfast: "I think what the Scottish Government would like to do is take an approach similar to other countries where effectively a quarantine is applied to almost everybody coming in from overseas.

"The UK government's suggestion is that will only be from certain countries and the details of that are still not clear.

"The reality is that people won't necessarily travel directly - so even if you're saying people from South Africa have to quarantine, someone from South Africa might come via somewhere else."

She said that it would be "quite tricky" for Scotland to impose strict quarantine rules "unless the UK does this in a co-ordinated way".

The health secretary has warned tens of thousands of people in a number of postcode areas to take "extra special precaution" in order to avoid spreading the variant.

In full: Health Secretary Matt Hancock delivers a Covid update to MPs

There is, however, no evidence to suggest the new variant is more deadly compared to the original strain, r Hancock said.

Around 80,000 residents in parts of Surrey, London, Kent, Walsall, Southport and Hertfordshire will be offered a PCR Covid test – which can provide swift results on the same day – in a bid to curb the variant’s spread.

Mobile testing units and home testing kits will be deployed to those areas.

Hospital staff in the areas affected by the South African Covid variant strain are being asked to work from home, ITV News Political Editor Robert Peston understands.

In a letter sent to healthcare workers in the South East (ME15), staff are also being asked to undertake a lateral flow test if they are due to work clinically from Tuesday.

Professor Sir Mark Walport, former chief scientific adviser to the government, said it is "almost impossible" to completely shut down the country and prevent highly transmissible new strains from other countries coming to the UK.

Asked about border closures, Sir Mark told Times Radio: "There is the scientific perfect answer, and then there's the answer that policymakers will come to, which is sort of practical and achievable.

Many nations closed their borders to the UK when they announced the new strain of Covid-19 Credit: PA

"The simple answer is, if you want to stop new variants coming to the country then you have to do everything you can to reduce travellers and isolate them as they come across the border.

"The challenge for a country like the UK, which is a major global hub where for our resilience we depend on supplies from all over the world, is whether it's practical to actually achieve that.

"I think, realistically, most people would feel that, whilst one can delay the coming in of new variants of viruses from around the world, it's almost impossible to completely close down a country and prevent that happening if there is a very highly transmissible variant."

Public Health England (PHE) is studying whether those who have already had the vaccine could need a booster shot “a bit like the annual flu vaccine” to help protect them against Covid-19 mutations, such as the South Africa, Brazil and Kent variants.

The South African variant is thought to be as transmissible as the variant that was first identified in Kent but there is no evidence yet that it causes more severe disease.

Dr Susan Hopkins from Public Health England (PHE) said three different vaccines trialled so far had shown effectiveness against the South African variant at a level higher than the minimum standard set by the World Health Organisation and the US Food and Drug Administration.

(PA Graphics) Credit: PA Graphics

“We expect all other vaccines to have a similar level of effectiveness, particularly in reducing hospitalisation and death,” she said, adding that laboratory studies were being carried out to provide further evidence.

The worry that the South Africa variant was spreading across England came as reports suggested scientists had recommended ministers should have gone harder with their border controls to stop new variants from entering the country.

The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), according to The Times, said only mandatory hotel quarantines for all arrivals or a total border shutdown would keep mutations at bay.

Sage called for all arrivals to be quarantined in hotels, according to reports Credit: Steve Parsons/PA

A week after the advice was reportedly given to the UK government, the PM outlined his plan for travellers coming from 30 “red list” countries to face up to 10 days in hotel self-isolation, with no date yet set for when the rules will start to be enforced – proposals lighter than those pushed by Sage.

Labour’s shadow home secretary Thomas-Symonds called for the Home Office to “reverse this reckless policy of leaving our borders unlocked and open to further risk”.

He said: “Ministers have knowingly left the UK border open and potentially exposed people to new strains of the virus, in direct contradiction of their own Government scientists’ advice.

“This puts the gains of the vaccine at risk, with disastrous consequences for people’s lives.

“The Home Secretary needs to come to Parliament urgently and reverse this reckless policy of leaving our Borders unlocked and open to further risk.”

Where will surge testing happen?

  • Goldsworth Park and St Johns areas of Woking in Surrey, GU21

  • Hanwell and parts of West Ealing, W7

  • Haringey, N17

  • Mitcham, CR4

  • Maidstone, ME15

  • Walsall, WS2

  • Southport, PR9

  • Broxbourne, EN10

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