Could the UK impose new Covid travel restrictions?

·6-min read
Could the UK impose new Covid travel restrictions?

After Italy, the US and several other countries imposed restrictions on travellers arriving from China, what is the likelihood the UK could follow suit?

These are the key questions and answers.

What new rules are there – and why?

From 5 January, arrivals to the US from China must show a negative Covid-19 test result, or evidence of recent recovery from the virus.

The rule applies equally to the “Special Administrative Regions” – Hong Kong and Macau – as well as for travellers arriving from the country via the key hubs of Toronto, Vancouver and Seoul.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) made the move after Beijing’s lifted the “zero Covid” policy, leading to a rapid rise in infections across China.

The CDC said the tests are necessary due to “the lack of adequate and transparent epidemiological and viral genomic sequence data being reported” by the Chinese authorities.

“These data are critical to monitor the case surge effectively and decrease the chance for entry of a novel variant of concern,” the CDC said.

“Pre-departure testing and the requirement to show a negative test result has been shown to decrease the number of infected passengers boarding airplanes, and it will help to slow the spread of the virus as we work to identify and understand any potential new variants that may emerge.”

Any officially approved test, conducted no more than two days before departure from China, will suffice. Medically documented proof of an infection at least 10 days earlier will also be accepted.

The American move took place at the same time as Hong Kong lifted almost all travel restrictions from vaccinated visitors, in a bid to rebuild its tourism industry.

What are other countries doing?

The new US requirement follows similar moves from India, Italy, Japan and Taiwan.

Italy was the first European country where coronavirus spread rapidly after being imported from China. The health minister, Orazio Schillac, said pre-departure tests are now mandatory for passengers coming in from the People’s Republic, with testing on arrival for travellers whose condition raises concern.

Reports from Italy say that more than half of passengers arriving in Milan on two flights from China earlier this week had tested positive for Covid.

From 1 January 2023, arrivals to India from China, Japan, South Korea, Singapore and Thailand will have to upload a negative Covid-19 PCR test result – taken in the previous 72 hours – to Air Suvidha, a government website, before departure to India.

At present one in 50 of international arrivals to India – from anywhere in the world – is selected for random testing.

From 30 December, Japan is imposing tests on arrival for anyone who has been in China in the past week. Anyone who tests positive will be placed in a Covid recovery facility for a week.

Taiwan’s Central Epidemic Command Centre said PCR tests on arrival would be required for people coming in from mainland China from 1 January 2023.

Will the UK follow suit in asking for tests?

Not at the moment. A government spokesperson told The Independent: “There are no plans to re-introduce Covid-19 testing or additional requirements for arrivals into the UK.”

However, the UK Health Security Agency will continue to monitor the prevalence and spread of potentially harmful variants.

Does everyone agree no testing is necessary?

No. Former health minister Lord Bethell, who was appointed at the start of the Covid pandemic, told the BBC’s Today programme: “What the Italians are doing is post-flight surveillance on arrivals in Italy in order to understand whether there are any emerging variants and to understand the impact of the virus on the Italian health system. That’s a sensible thing to do and something the UK government should be seriously looking at.”

Paul Charles, chief executive of travel consultancy The PC Agency and a campaigner against draconian Covid restrictions, said: “I think it’s inevitable that the UK will follow the move by several other countries to put greater restrictions on those flying from China.

“There is a huge gap in knowledge about the impact of Covid in China and ministers won’t want to risk not doing anything to monitor the flow of Covid into the UK from China. It is relatively easy for the UK government to ask airlines to insist on negative Covid tests at the point of departure from a specific country.

“Ministers have learned to share much more health information with other countries since the onset of Covid, and you can’t have Italy and the US doing one thing while the UK rests on its laurels. So I’d expect changes by this time next week, just before China removes its own restrictions on 8 January.”

The Independent has asked the Labour Party whether it supports calls for new tests for arrivals from China. During the height of the pandemic, shadow ministers consistently called for tougher travel restrictions.

What do the scientists say?

Christina Pagel, professor of operational research at UCL, wrote on Twitter: “I’m being asked whether I think the UK should start testing/quarantining travellers from China given their ongoing large wave.

“My response is – when and for what purpose? Cos that determines whether it makes any sense.

“If it’s to reduce number of cases in UK, then testing/quarantine from China is entirely pointless. We have plenty of Covid here already, have done for ages and there is v little in place to prevent in-country transmission.”

But she said that if the aim is to prevent new and potentially dangerous variants entering the UK, to be effective it would require negative PCR testing before travel from everywhere abroad, for all travellers including returning UK residents.

“Variants spread beyond borders and they can emerge anywhere. Simply adding requirements for China isn’t effective and to me seems like performative restrictions,” she wrote.

Professor Pagel is a member of Independent Sage, a group of scientists working together to provide advice to the UK government, but was commenting in a personal capacity.

She added: “SARS-CoV-2 infecting a significant proportion of a 1 billion strong population in a short amount of time gives a lot of potential for mutations and new variants to emerge, and it seems prudent to keep an eye out for new mutations.

“If China won’t share its sequence data, then I can see case for testing arrivals from China at UK airports – but this can be a random subsample and should be at our own cost.”

How many flights are coming in from China?

According to aviation analytics firm Cirium, six non-stop flights with 1,795 seats are due in to the UK from China over the next week on Air China, China Southern Airlines, Hainan Airlines, Beijing Capital Airlines and China Eastern Airlines.

Flights will arrive from Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Qingdao.

In addition, The Independent has identified two daily flights to London Heathrow from Hong Kong on Cathay Pacific and a third on British Airways.

Remind me about Covid testing for travel to the UK?

Throughout 2020, British ministers dismissed pre-travel testing as useless. But in 2021, after an unprecedented 19-week ban took effect, the government made testing mandatory for all arrivals.

Until 18 March 2022, the UK had some of the most onerous travel restrictions of any major European country. Unvaccinated travellers were required to take a pre-departure test and a post-arrival PCR.

When they were lifted in March, the then transport secretary, Grant Shapps, said: “You can travel just like in the good old days.”