Screening travellers from China for Covid is unlikely to prevent new variants reaching the UK, the chairman of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation has said.
Ministers have said the Government is keeping the situation “under review” after Beijing announced plans to start reissuing passports and visas for overseas trips, even as some Tory MPs called for a stronger response.
A number of countries, including the United States, India, Italy, South Korea and Taiwan, have responded by requiring visitors from China to be tested for the virus amid concerns that the lifting of restrictions there has seen a wave of infections.
In Britain, the health minister Will Quince has said the “key threat” was the potential for the emergence of new variants.
However, Professor Andrew Pollard said the imposition of travel restrictions was unlikely to prove effective in stopping variants reaching the country.
“Trying to ban a virus by adjusting what we do with travel has already been shown not to work very well. We have seen that with the bans on travel from various countries during the pandemic,” he told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme.
“The important thing is that we have surveillance that when a virus is spreading within our population here in the UK or Europe we are able to pick that up and predict what might happen with the health systems and particularly the more vulnerable in the population.”
Prof Pollard said that any new variant which did appear in China was likely to be best-adapted to spreading in the Chinese population.
“The immunity in the (Chinese) population currently relates to vaccines that have been given in the population over the last couple of years and are different to the vaccines we have had and they have not had the extra immunity from having waves of Covid,” he said.
“So it is very difficult at this moment to tell whether a variant emerging in China is likely to have any impact here in the UK anyway.
“Testing people travelling from China probably doesn’t really answer the question about whether any new variant that is detected is going to be a problem here.”
Tory MP David Davis suggested that mandatory testing for those coming from China was a “pretty sensible requirement”.
“If somebody turns up with the next virulent variant from China, we want to have processes in place – I think the Government should certainly consider it and I would ideally implement it,” the former Cabinet minister told LBC.
Tobias Ellwood, the chairman of the Commons Defence Committee, called testing a “minimal effort”.
The Conservative MP told LBC: “Let’s get testing in place for passengers regardless of nationality of all incoming flights from China. Do we want to take a risk after all that we’ve been through, in this pandemic?”