One of the scientists behind the UK’s testing network for quickly identifying Covid variants of concern has urged the government to continue surveillance of coronavirus cases brought in to the UK from abroad.
Alan McNally, a professor in microbial evolutionary genomics who worked on setting up the lighthouse laboratories, made the comments amid reports ministers are preparing to overhaul Covid travel restrictions, including a relaxing of test rules.
It has been reported that double-jabbed travellers will no longer need to take a more costly PCR test after returning from green countries, but take a cheaper lateral flow test instead, while pre-departure tests, taken 72 hours before a passenger flies home are also likely to be scrapped.
It is only positive PCR tests that are referred for genomic sequencing – the process that identifies whether the infection was caused by a new variant of coronavirus.
McNally said: “It kind of makes sense if you look at the rates of Covid in the UK right now, they’re high, so probably lateral flow tests will be sufficient for travellers.
“But I don’t think we can just completely remove all controls on travel and travel-associated Covid, we know from the past that travel-associated Covid is very high risk to this country.
“The devil’s in the detail in this and I would really hope there will be a very strong mandate that any lateral flow positive test from travel have to get a confirmatory PCR test because in my opinion we still that genome level surveillance of Covid cases being introduced into the UK from abroad.”
He added: “I do think it’s vitally important we do genome surveillance on travel Covid cases.”
McNally said there were two groups of people that needed genome surveillance: those who had been double vaccinated but were hospitalised and those who had travelled, adding: “If we’re not monitoring travel-related Covid cases we can end up in big trouble.”
As well as changes to the travel testing regime, it is understood ministers are to slash the number of red list countries. The traffic light system will be overhauled, with the amber tier removed so there is a clearer distinction between “go” and “no go” destinations.
Currently, scientists working at the Joint Biosecurity Centre suggest changes to the three lists depending on each country’s Covid case, vaccine and variant levels, though ministers vet these and make the ultimate decisions.
Speaking on Sky News on Friday, the environment secretary, George Eustice, said: “My understanding is no decisions have been taken yet, there may be a meeting today to review this.”
Government insiders told the Guardian the ultimate aim was to simplify the rules, after Labour called for the amber list to be scrapped in order to clarify guidance on which destinations are relatively safe and which are not.
However, they also admitted it would have the effect of providing a greater incentive to the 10% of those eligible to be vaccinated who had not yet had their first jab, given the extra money people would have to pay for a PCR test instead of a cheaper lateral flow one, as well as avoiding the hassle of having to self-isolate.