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All travellers arriving in England will be required to take a Covid-19 pre-departure test – while Nigeria is being added to the Government’s travel red list, Health Secretary Sajid Javid has said.
Mr Javid said the Government had decided to move after receiving new data about the spread of the Omicron variant, which emerged in southern Africa.
“Since we have learned of this new variant our strategy has been to buy time. We have always said we will act swiftly should new data require it,” he told broadcasters.
“Over recent days we have learned of a significant number of growing cases linked to travel with Nigeria.
“There are 27 cases already in England and that’s growing. Nigeria now is second only to South Africa in terms of linked cases to Omicron.”
The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) later said the correct figure was 21.
The Scottish and Welsh governments said they were both adopting similar controls.
Under the new rules, from 4am on Monday only British and Irish nationals travelling from Nigeria will be allowed into the country and must isolate in a government-managed quarantine hotel.
And from 4am on Tuesday, anyone travelling to the UK from countries not on the red list will be required to take a pre-departure test a maximum of 48 hours before leaving, regardless of their vaccination.
And – from 4am Tuesday, anyone travelling to the UK from countries not on the Red List will be required to take a pre-departure test, regardless of their vaccination status. 2/3
— Sajid Javid (@sajidjavid) December 4, 2021
The announcement will be seen as evidence of the mounting concern within Whitehall of the threat posed by the Omicron variant.
However, the requirement for pre-departure tests was greeted with anger and dismay across the travel sector – just as bookings were picking up with the approach of the Christmas break.
Tim Alderslade, chief executive of the industry body Airlines UK, said the rapidly changing measures meant planning for travel was becoming impossible.
“It is premature to hit millions of passengers and industry before we see the full data. We don’t have the clinical evidence,” he said.
Vaccines remain our first line of defence – the best way to protect yourself and your loved ones. Please get vaccinated or #GetBoosted as soon as you can. 3/3
— Sajid Javid (@sajidjavid) December 4, 2021
“They’ve now changed their travel advice twice within a week and it’s just impossible for anyone to plan. These measures must be removed as quickly as possible in line with the speed of the booster programme.”
The Airport Operators Association chief executive Karen Dee said it was a “devastating blow” for aviation and tourism, and said the Government should step in to support the industry.
“Pre-departure tests acts as a major deterrent to travel and most of the limited remaining demand following the reintroduction of self-isolation will now fall away, just as airports were hoping for a small uplift over the Christmas holiday,” she said.
“The UK and devolved governments should have done the right thing and, alongside the restrictions, announced support for our businesses and our staff to get through another period of shutdown.”
The DHSC said new analysis by the UK Health and Security Agency (HSA) suggested the window between infection and infectiousness may be shorter for the Omicron variant, increasing the efficacy of pre-departure testing as it is more likely to identify positive cases before travel.
For Labour, which has been calling for the re-introduction of pre-departure tests since the variant was identified, shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper welcomed the move but said ministers should have moved sooner.
“We badly need them to learn the lessons on the importance of acting quickly on Covid border measures rather than each time having to be put under huge pressure to finally act.”
Nigeria joins 10 other African nations – Angola, Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe – on the red list.
Mr Javid however stressed the Government was still looking to the expanded vaccination programme as its main weapon in the fight against the spread of the disease.
“It is important to remember while we are introducing these new border measures today vaccinations are our first line of defence The expansion of the booster programme is hugely important,” he said.
The HSA said that as of Saturday a further 26 cases of the Omicron variant have been reported across the UK – 25 of them in England.
It takes the total number of confirmed cases of the variant in the UK to 160.
On Friday the HSA said that in England Omicron cases have now been identified in East Midlands, East of England, London, North East, North West, South East, South West and West Midlands.
Individuals who have tested positive for the variant and their contacts are being asked to self-isolate while the HSA said it was carrying out targeted testing at locations where the positive cases were thought likely to be infectious.
The figures came as a risk assessment by the HSA rated the Omicron variant as “red” for severity of infection and “amber” for transmissibility between humans.
It said the variant was likely to reduce the protection from both naturally or vaccine-acquired immunity.
However it acknowledged there was so far “insufficient data” to reach firm conclusions and the assessment was presented with “low confidence”.
HSA chief executive Dr Jenny Harries said: “We are working as fast as possible to gather more evidence about any impact the new variant may have on severity of disease or vaccine effectiveness.
“Until we have this evidence, we must exercise the highest level of caution in drawing conclusions about any significant risks to people’s health.”