Fears South Africa variant spreading because of lax UK border controls – seven weeks after discovery

Passenger wearing a face mask arrives at the Heathrow international arrival hall. (Photo by May James / SOPA Images/Sipa USA)
A senior Labour MP has raised fears that lax UK border controls could be helping the spread of the South Africa variant of COVID-19. (SOPA Images/Sipa USA)

A senior Labour MP has raised fears that lax UK border controls could be helping the spread of the South Africa variant of COVID-19.

Yvette Cooper, chair of the House of Commons home affairs committee, pointed out some people who have been in South Africa can still arrive in the UK and get on public transport.

She asked health secretary Matt Hancock: “Why is that still allowed?”

It comes after 11 people with no links to international travel were identified as having tested positive for the variant, suggesting it may be spreading in some areas.

On 24 December last year, the government banned direct flights from South Africa in response to the emergence of the new variant.

Visitors who have been in South Africa during the previous 10 days are denied entry, though this doesn’t apply to British and Irish citizens, who can still enter the UK indirectly before having to self-isolate for 10 days.

On Tuesday, Cooper said the 11 cases – which have prompted the government to roll out thousands of home tests in eight postcode areas in an attempt to break the chains of transmission – show the border measures are “failing”.

She said: “He [Hancock] set out no timetable for quarantine hotels today and seven weeks after the variant was identified, it’s still possible for people to travel home from South Africa and elsewhere with no quarantine hotels, no quarantine taxis, no test on arrival and still go straight onto public transport in the UK.

“Why is that still allowed and how long is he going to allow it for?”

Watch: We must ‘come down hard’ on coronavirus variants, Matt Hancock says

Hancock insisted the border measures are “significant” but added the government is “looking at what further measures are necessary”.

On Wednesday, Boris Johnson announced all people arriving in the UK from government-listed COVID-19 hotspots would have to quarantine in a hotel.

However, a start date still hasn’t been confirmed, with some reports suggesting it could be 15 February.

Downing Street is facing growing scrutiny over border measures due to concerns over the variant identified in South Africa.

While there is no evidence it can cause more serious illness, it contains a mutation known as E484K. This may help the virus evade parts of the immune system called antibodies.

Experts believe this could make vaccines less effective, although the jabs may still be able to prevent severe disease.

However, Andrew Hayward, professor of infectious disease epidemiology at University College London and a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), has also warned of the “100%” probability of more strains entering the UK unless borders are shut completely.

He told Sky News on Tuesday: “The nature of this virus is that it will continue to mutate, as do all viruses, and new strains will emerge and they’ll emerge in many different countries in the world at different times, and you won’t notice that they are spreading until such time as they are quite widespread.”

It’s why Prof Hayward said the UK will not be able to keep borders shut forever and a “sustainable strategy” will be needed in the future to tackle coronavirus mutations.

“Yes, you can think about completely shutting the borders or having quarantine, [but] what’s the endgame in that?”

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