The U.K. moved Friday to toughen up its entry requirements beyond its surprise decision to ban travel from South America and Portugal in the face of a new virus variant in Brazil, arguing that the measures are needed to ensure Britain’s fast-moving vaccination program isn’t derailed.
Conservative Prime Minister Prime Minister Boris Johnson said remaining travel corridors will end Monday and that everyone flying into the U.K. will have to have proof of a negative COVID-19 test taken 72 hours before departure. Under the travel corridor arrangements, anyone arriving in the U.K. from countries deemed safe was exempt from a period of quarantine.
Once in Britain, travelers will have to self-isolate for ten days unless they can show evidence of a further negative test at least five days after arrival.
The scrapping of the travel corridors came after the government banned travel from South America and Portugal amid concerns over the Brazil variant, which authorities have said has yet to appear in the U.K. Portugal has been particularly aghast at the ban, which the British government said was justified because of its strong links with Brazil.
“At this crucial stage, what we can’t have is new variants with unknown qualities coming in from abroad and that’s why we’ve set up the system to stop arrivals from places where there are new variants of concern and set up the extra tough measures,” Johnson told a press briefing.
Though the decision was widely welcomed, including by lobby group Airlines U.K., Johnson was also accused again of tardy decision-making.
“I think many people will say ‘Why on earth didn’t this happen before?’” said Keir Starmer, leader of the main opposition Labour Party. “Many countries have taken this step before we did. Right step, but slow again.”
Whether the changes make much difference is another matter, as many countries have themselves banned travel from the U.K. following the discovery in England of another, more contagious variant of the virus that has been blamed for a sharp rise in infections and deaths. Scientists have said there is no indication the U.K. variant reacts any differently to coronavirus vaccines.
The U.K. is ramping up its mass vaccination program to the country’s oldest and most vulnerable residents. According to government figures, a little more than 3.2 million people, or around 5% of the population, have received a first dose of a two-shot vaccine.
Britain plans to give the first dose to around 15 million people, including those over 70, frontline healthcare workers and others who are particularly vulnerable to the virus, by the middle of February.
While the first stage of the vaccination program aims to protect around 85% of those deemed most likely to die from COVID-19, the country is expected to continue recording high mortality rates over coming weeks because of the lag time between infections and deaths. Johnson said there are currently over 37,000 COVID-related patients in hospitals across the U.K., which is around 15,000 more than in the first peak of the pandemic in April.
“We are now seeing cancer treatments sadly postponed, ambulances queuing, and intensive care units spilling over into adjacent wards,” he said.
The government on Friday reported 55,761 more confirmed infections and the deaths of another 1,280 people within 28 days of testing positive for the virus. The daily update brought the U.K.’s overall death toll to 87,295, the highest in Europe and the fifth-highest in the world. On Friday, the global death toll surpassed 2 million, according to figures compiled by Johns Hopkins University.
Many of the newly diagnosed are likely to have become infected during the Christmas holidays, before the current national lockdown in England came into force on Jan. 5. The other nations of the U.K. — Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland — have tightened lockdown restrictions too.
Professor Chris Whitty, the British government’s chief medical officer, said he hoped the peak of infections has “already happened” in London and the southeast of England where the new U.K. variant was first identified and where restrictions had been tightened before the national lockdown.
“The peak of deaths I fear is in the future, the peak of hospitalizations in some parts of the country may be around about now and beginning to come off the very, very top,” he said. “Because people are sticking so well to the guidelines we do think the peaks are coming over the next week to 10 days for most places in terms of new people into hospital.”