South Africa virus strain forces UK to consider full border closure as EU says travel restrictions are days away

Boris Johnson under pressure to ban non-residents from top ministers

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UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson is under pressure to close Britain's borders to foreigners as ministers push for stronger action to keep out mutant variants of coronavirus.

Restricting travel to non-citizens would be the government’s toughest action yet on quarantine arrangements after Monday’s decision to close travel corridors and force travellers to present a negative Covid test on arrival.

EU leaders are also eyeing tougher border action after a German plan proposed a ban on non-residents. Germany, which topped 50,000 Covid deaths on Friday, said the ban should be lifted when the UK lowers transmission rates of the new strain.

The UK government has been reluctant to shut its borders amid concern about the effect on the wider economy.

Home Secretary Priti Patel and Health Secretary Matt Hancock are understood to favour an Australia and New Zealand-style plan, which restricts travel for non-citizens and mandatory quarantine of arrivals in approved hotels, The Telegraph reported.

Scientists said this week the system of "voluntary self-isolation" should be replaced as “a matter of urgency” with hotel quarantine. Officials were also examining a Polish scheme that uses GPS tracking to monitor people who should be in self-isolation.

Environment Secretary George Eustice said the government had considered hotel quarantine and a total closure of the border to protect the country’s vaccination programme from new variants of the virus. However, he said ministers had decided for now the "right thing to do is to require pre-travel testing".

Among the strains causing concern are those first identified in South Africa and Brazil. Scientists are concerned the South African variant poses a "significant reinfection risk".

"We always keep things under review and [a shutdown has] been considered," Mr Eustice told Sky News.

"There is concern at the moment about the number of mutant strains that there are – different strains of this coronavirus are cropping up in other countries.”

Asked if he was among those wanting to see the UK borders closed, Mr Eustice said: "Personally I wouldn't like to see all borders closed … but we can't rule anything out.”

Ms Patel admitted this week she had advocated for the borders to be closed in response to the initial outbreak in March last year.

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps, though, argued that a border closure would be challenging for trade.

Britain's food and manufacturing chains depend on imports trucked in on a just-in-time basis from Europe, while Northern Ireland has an unmarked border with the EU.

The government's Covid operations committee will reportedly discuss border closures soon, as well as a proposal to offer a £500 payment for anyone who tests positive for the virus in England.

EU planning tougher border controls

EU leaders said tougher restrictions on travel could come within days if efforts to curb the virus fall short.

EU chiefs Ursula von der Leyen and Charles Michel issued the warning after a four-hour summit by video link with the heads of government of the 27-nation bloc focused on responding to the second wave of the pandemic.

epa08945858 Travellers in the international arrival area of Heathrow Airport, near London, Britain, 18 January 2021. Travel corridors in the the UK were closed at 04:00 hours on 18 January 2021 as British government declared. Travellers arriving to England from anywhere outside the UK have to to self-isolate for 10 days and must have proof of a negative coronavirus test. Britain's national health service (NHS) is coming under sever pressure as Covid-19 hospital admissions continue to rise across the UK.  EPA/NEIL HALL
Travellers at the international arrival hall of Heathrow Airport. EPA

The tone of urgency was fuelled by fears over the spread of highly contagious coronavirus variants that could send already high infection rates skyrocketing and strain hospitals, as is happening in former EU member Britain.

"All non-essential travel should be strongly discouraged, within the country and of course across borders," Ms von der Leyen said.

Mr Michel, president of the European Council, said: "It will probably be necessary to take additional restrictive measures in order to limit non-essential travels and that is the orientation that we are taking."

Both said that further co-ordination on the issue would be made in "the next days".

But both also said the EU wanted to avoid a repeat of the height of the first wave, in March last year, when several member states panicked and closed off national borders unilaterally, triggering travel and economic chaos.

"It is absolutely important to keep the single market functioning," Ms von der Leyen said, so that workers and freight can continue to cross borders.

The EU is "one epidemiological zone”, she said.

"We will contain the virus only if we have targeted measures, and not unnecessary measures like a blanket closure of borders, which would severely hurt our economy, but not very much restrict the virus," she said.

To avoid closing the intra-EU borders in the passport-free Schengen zone, testing needs to be stepped up, leaders agreed.

From Sunday, anybody arriving from outside the EU – possibly only those with essential reasons for entry – may have to have a Covid test before departure, Ms von der Leyen said.

Within the EU, some countries will apply prior testing for cross-border trips that do not come under essential categories, such as workers and lorry drivers.

EU leaders also discussed vaccine certificates - or vaccine passports - which tourism-dependent countries such as Greece hope might ease travel curbs and save what looks like another disastrous summer vacation period.

However, EU leaders decided it was too early and too many questions remained for such a certificate to be used as anything more than a health record.