UK Covid checks on travellers from China 'under review', says defence secretary

Passengers wearing face masks line up to enter an international departure gate at the Beijing Capital International Airport, December 29. Credit: AP

The decision to implement Covid checks on visitors from China is "under review", the UK has said, as the EU assesses whether to impose bloc-wide restrictions.

UK Defence Secretary Ben Wallace said he "expected to see clarification" from the Department for Transport "in the next day or so".

The US, Italy, India, Taiwan, South Korea, Malaysia and Japan announced new screening measures following the end of Beijing’s zero-Covid policy that sparked a surge in cases in the East Asian country.

Italian Premier Giorgia Meloni on Thursday ramped up the pressure on the EU's 27 members to join her country and introduce a common approach to travel rules.

A spokesperson for the UK government said on Wednesday evening that there were "no plans" to implement mandatory tests, after the US joined the growing list of countries taking action.

But the defence secretary appeared to backtrack on the government's stance on Thursday, after two former health ministers were among those urging ministers to rethink their policy and follow the “sensible” approach of Italy.

Defence Secretary Ben Wallace said the decision to screen travellers from China was 'under review'

Asked about the government’s position during a visit to military personnel covering for striking Border Force officials at Manchester Airport on Thursday, Mr Wallace replied: “The government is looking at that, it’s under review.

"We noticed obviously what the United States has done and India and I think Italy has looked at it.

“We keep under review all the time, obviously, health threats to the United Kingdom, wherever they may be.

“I think the Department of Transport will take medical advice, talk to the Department of Health and they’ll come to some decisions depending on what we see coming out of China, but at the moment it’s under review.”

A government spokesperson said in a statement: “We are keeping the situation under review and UKHSA is monitoring the public health situation. At the moment there are no plans to introduce any new covid 19 testing for arrivals.”

An officer collects passports for renewal and re-applications at a Beijing police station. Credit: AP

Lord Bethell, who was in post during the pandemic, said the British government should be "seriously" looking at introducing surveillance of arrival flights.

“What the Italians are doing is post-flight surveillance of arrivals in Italy in order to understand whether there are any emerging variants and… the impact of the virus on the Italian health system,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

He said: “You’ve got to appreciate that a lot of people who get on these flights, we know from experience, will be people who are poorly themselves and are coming to the West for medical help.

“That is quite a daunting prospect for our healthcare system and it’s important that we know which of them have got the virus and what kind of virus they’ve got.”

Former Tory minister Steve Brine also warned on Times Radio that the NHS would not be able to cope if travellers brought over a new variant.

Meanwhile, the European Union refrained from immediately following member Italy's approach but health officials promised to continue talks on seeking a common approach to travel rules.

But the EU's executive arm said the BF7 omicron variant prevalent in China was already circulating in Europe and that its threat had not significantly grown.

“However, we remain vigilant and will be ready to use the emergency brake if necessary,” the European Commission said in a statement.

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Even though virus experts in the EU have played down the immediate danger, Italy made coronavirus tests mandatory for all airline passengers arriving from China.

More than 50% of people screened upon arrival at Milan’s Malpensa airport in recent days tested positive for the virus.

Italian Premier Giorgia Meloni said requiring Covid tests of all passengers from China “is only effective if it is taken at the European level,’’ noting that many arrive in Italy on connecting flights through other European countries.

Considering the reluctance from several EU nations and experts, the EU's health security committee said in a statement after meeting on Thursday that “we need to act jointly and will continue our discussions.”

A coordinated EU approach is considered necessary by some since almost all EU member nations are part of Europe's visa-free Schengen Area. The unrestricted travel means that testing in one nation would not be very effective since travellers could enter from another EU nation and spread the virus.

The United States announced new Covid testing requirements on Wednesday for all travellers from China, joining some Asian nations that had imposed restrictions because of a surge of infections.

Japan will require a negative Covid-19 test upon arrival for travellers from China, and Malaysia announced new tracking and surveillance measures.

India, South Korea and Taiwan are requiring virus tests for visitors from China.