A British cabinet minister has sought to dampen down a growing diplomatic row with France over the imposition of tougher international restrictions on millions of travellers due to the threat of the Beta variant of coronavirus.
Grant Shapps, the transport secretary, defended the decision to put France on the “amber-plus” list, after the foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, on Thursday suggested the variant’s prevalence on Réunion, a French overseas territory in the Indian Ocean, was partly to blame.
The move – which means fully vaccinated people entering the UK from France are not able to avoid quarantine and must instead self-isolate for up to 10 days – prompted fury from the French authorities and those living or holidaying across the Channel.
A French deputy recently criticised the extra restrictions as being based on neither science nor logic, summing it up as “Kafka goes on holiday with Godot”, while the country’s Europe minister called the change “frankly incomprehensible on health grounds” and discriminatory.
UK ministers and the Joint Biosecurity Centre – which advises on the Covid situation in countries across the world – came under further pressure on Thursday, when they were accused by the Office for Statistics Regulation of “not making the data and sources clear” to evidence the need for the drastic action.
There have been 1,023 Beta cases in Réunion – equal to about a third of the total number discovered across mainland France, 2,974, according to the Global Initiative on Sharing Avian Influenza Data.
Raab suggested the situation in Réunion – which is still on the normal amber list – was part of the reason for restricting travel from France, saying it was “not the distance that matters” but rather “the ease of travel between different component parts of any individual country”.
But Shapps told LBC that Réunion was only “part of the story” and that the decision was made “because of cases actually in France” on the mainland – particularly the north. He said the government had followed a “safety-first approach” because he was anxious not to “undo all the good work that’s been done with the vaccinations”.
He added: “The government has been on the cautious side of careful … and it’s right we do that.”
Government sources said France was likely to be moved off the amber list in an announcement made next Thursday that will come into force from the following Monday, 9 August. Though Spain – where Beta cases have risen by 14.2% in the past four weeks – is at risk of going on to the “amber-plus” list.
Labour said ministers were “tying themselves in knots trying to explain their decision” and said if they “misinterpreted the data over cases in mainland France, they need to come clean and apologise”.
“It’s completely unfair that holidaymakers who booked in good faith in line with the government’s own advice have had to fork out extra for early flights, or lost income through having to isolate when they came home,” added the shadow transport secretary, Jim McMahon.
Sir Peter Ricketts, a former UK ambassdor to France and national security adviser, also said he was “struggling to find coherence” in the government’s position.