UK’s high Covid rates mean foreign travel barriers ‘churlish’, says expert

The risks of catching the virus at home are ‘relatively high’ said Dr Simon Clarke, as travel rules were changed.

International travel
International travel

Travellers could be as likely to catch Covid on a trip to Torquay as one to Turkey, an expert has said, as international travel rules were relaxed.

The easing of rules on quarantine and testing for international travellers will “inevitably increase the risk” of infections from abroad, Dr Simon Clarke said.

But the associate professor in cellular microbiology at the University of Reading added that high rates in the UK mean it would be “churlish” to have obstacles in the way of foreign travel.

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps announced on Friday that the traffic light system is to be replaced from October 4 by a single, reduced, “red list” of destinations, from where travellers arriving in England will have to quarantine in a Government-supervised hotel.

People who are fully vaccinated will no longer need a pre-departure test before returning from non-red list destinations, and from the end of October they will be able to replace the day two PCR test with a cheaper lateral flow test.

Dr Clarke said that while people being double jabbed against the virus does reduce the risk of transmission, it is “not zero”.

He said: “Given the fact that community transmission within the UK is still running at a high level, it seems churlish to put high barriers in the way of international travel when the risks of catching Covid at home are relatively high.

“With infection rates as high as they are in the UK, and with vaccines offering good but not perfect protection, you may be as likely to pick up Covid from a trip to Torquay as a trip to Turkey.”

With changes to testing rules, he warned that the “more accurate” PCR tests should be used to confirm results of quicker lateral flow tests.

Travel providers have already reported a peak in interest since the announcement, with one saying there had been a “phenomenal reaction”.

Steve Heapy, chief executive of Jet2.com and Jet2holidays, said bookings had spiked “by more than 250%”.

He said Turkey is proving “exceptionally popular”, adding: “Thanks to the certainty that yesterday’s announcement has given customers, destinations right across the board are selling well, whether it’s for late summer sun, winter or next summer. As you might expect, half term dates have also seen a surge in bookings for families.”

Alan French, chief executive of travel firm Thomas Cook, said October half-term bookings were up 200% compared with August and he expected this figure to increase as a result of the changed system.

Andrew Flintham, managing director of holiday company TUI UK, said he had already seen “an uptick in bookings for Turkey in October” and expected a boost in customer confidence with the new rules.

Online travel agency Skyscanner said it saw a 133% spike in traffic in the 30 minutes following Mr Shapps’s announcement, while there had been “huge increases” in searches for destinations such as Turkey and the Maldives in anticipation of Friday’s news.

Coronavirus graphic
(PA Graphics)

But another scientist warned that the latest changes could risk new variants coming in, as PCR tests had been a way to monitor mutations entering the country.

Professor Lawrence Young, professor of molecular oncology at the University of Warwick, said: “The main concern is what this means for virus genomic sequencing. How will we ensure that those who test positive on a lateral flow test isolate and take a PCR test?

“It is likely that this approach will reduce our ability to efficiently monitor the introduction of new variants into the country.

“We know that fully vaccinated individuals can get infected and spread the virus. We also know that previous waves of infection have been fuelled by returning travellers.

“Letting our guard down runs the risk of bringing a new variant into the country, such as the mu variant first identified in Colombia, which could reduce the effectiveness of current vaccines.”

Labour also raised concerns over how the monitoring for coronavirus variants will continue, with shadow transport secretary Jim McMahon saying PCR tests play “a crucial role” in identifying mutations and demanding that ministers “set out in detail exactly how they will continue this surveillance”.

Coronavirus graphic
(PA Graphics)

The Scottish Government said it would drop the traffic light system but would not follow England in removing the pre-departure test requirement for the fully vaccinated returning from non-red list countries, and will not change to using lateral flow tests on day two.

The Welsh Government said it would consider the UK Government’s proposed changes, but health and social services minister Eluned Morgan warned they could “weaken the line of defence on importing infection and increase opportunities for new infections and new variants to enter the UK and Wales”.

Both administrations said they would mirror the changes to the red list destinations.

In Northern Ireland, the traffic light system will change from October 4, with a single “red list” of destinations and a “simplified process” for travellers for the rest of the world.

Proposed changes to pre-departure and post-arrival testing are under consideration and will be discussed by Stormont ministers next week.

Under the changed travel system for England, unvaccinated passengers from non-red list countries will have to take a pre-departure test, and a PCR test on days two and eight after returning.

However, travellers who have a valid vaccination certificate from 17 additional countries and territories, including Japan and Singapore, will be treated as if they had been jabbed in the UK.

Meanwhile, eight countries, including Turkey, Pakistan and the Maldives, are being removed from the red list with effect from 4am on Wednesday.

Travellers from Egypt, Sri Lanka, Oman, Bangladesh and Kenya will also no longer be required to hotel quarantine from that date.

Mr Shapps said the measures were intended to strike the “right balance“, simplifying the system while managing the public health risk “as No.1 priority”.

The latest Government figures showed that, as of Saturday, there had been another 30,144 lab-confirmed Covid-19 cases in the UK, and a further 164 people had died within 28 days of testing positive for the virus.

The number of Covid deaths reported by the Government in the past seven days is 1,003.

This is the first time that figure has gone above 1,000 since the seven days to March 15.

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