France has already tightened its restrictions on British tourists due to the spread of the variant, announcing that anyone arriving from the UK must quarantine for seven days.
A similar policy has been adopted in Germany, where, since 23 May, travellers from Britain have been banned from entering the country after the UK was designated a “virus variant area of concern” by the German public health institute.
Known as B.1.617.2, the variant is thought to be spreading rapidly among unvaccinated pockets of the population in a number of cities and towns in England, including Bolton, Bedford, Blackburn and parts of London.
Up to 15 May, it had been detected in 151 local authorities, an 18 per cent increase on the week before, according to figures from the Wellcome Sanger Institute, while the government said on Thursday that the variant now accounts for up to 75 per cent of all new cases in England.
Ravi Gupta, a professor of clinical microbiology at Cambridge University and scientific adviser to the government, said the UK could start to export cases of B.1.617.2, along with any other variants that later emerge from it, if transmission is not brought under control.
“As B.1.617.2 starts to increase, we may also be at risk of exporting a more worrisome form of the virus to other countries,” he told The Independent. “On balance, that's what I think is the major risk at the moment, to other countries from us, rather the other way around.”
He highlighted that Britain already has experience in spreading one troublesome variant – B.1.1.7 - beyond its borders. The Kent variant, which emerged late last year, has been detected in most countries across the world, and is now dominant in a number of nations too.
However, experts believe that the Indian variant, so far identified in 53 countries, could replace B.1.1.7 as Europe’s dominant variant.
Cristina Pagel, a professor of operational research at University College London, said the government should not be encouraging travel in the summer due to the threat posed by the Indian variant.
“From a more altruistic perspective, we should not be going on holiday and spreading B.1.617.2 to other places,” she told The Independent.
“We very efficiently exported the Kent variant at Christmas and it caused havoc in Europe, in the States, in India. It spread globally and caused problems everywhere it went.
“We have a responsibility not to export the variant. The speed at which it’s taken off – incidentally under step two, not step three, of the roadmap – is hugely concerning.”
Dr Marc Baguelin, an epidemiologist and modeller for the British Scientific Council, said that “the risk of having a third coronavirus wave during the summer” in the UK was high because of the Indian variant.
Although the Covid vaccines remain effective against the variant after two doses, scientists are concerned that the highly transmissible variant will still spread among unvaccinated or not fully protected individuals as restrictions are lifted, culminating in some hospitalisations and deaths.
France's European affairs minister, Clement Beaune, has meanwhile said that Britons will need “a compelling reason” to be in the country from Monday, when the new quarantine measures come into force.
Holidays are also “out of the question and should be scrapped,” according to a spokesman for France’s tourism ministry.