UK considers Covid-19 travel restrictions on passengers from China

Several countries including the US, Japan, Italy and India have introduced mandatory tests for Chinese travellers

People at Heathrow Airport after arriving on a flight from Shanghai. Getty
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British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is understood to be considering imposing restrictions on travellers from China amid mounting concerns about the increase in Covid cases.

Ministers are discussing bringing back measures for the first time since all rules were relaxed on March 18.

Spain said on Friday it would require air passengers coming from China to have negative tests or proof of vaccination.

The US, Italy Japan and India are among the countries to have already announced mandatory tests for passengers from China due to a recent surge in infections.

Steve Barclay, the Health Secretary, held a meeting with Sir Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical officer, and Jenny Harries, the chief executive of the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA), to discuss a possible reintroduction of Covid travel rules.

They decided against announcing new rules, but ministers did not rule out a return of measures.

China is preparing to open up its borders in January and issue passports and visas, despite a surge in Covid-19 infections.

About 5,000 new cases have been recorded in China each day, but analysts say the daily count could be closer to one million.

Steve Brine, chairman of the House of Commons health committee, has accused China of refusing to reveal the extent of the outbreak in the country.

"We know their data is withheld and unreliable," he said.

The resurgence of Covid has hit hospitals in China hard and left people struggling to find basic medical supplies.

China’s plan to allow citizens to travel abroad again has caused concern among some governments and led to restrictions being imposed.

Covid in China latest - in pictures

A spokesman for Mr Sunak’s government said: “We are keeping the situation under review and UKHSA is monitoring the public health situation.

“At the moment there are no plans to introduce any new Covid 19 testing for arrivals.”

Defence Secretary Ben Wallace said on Thursday that the government would “review whether different countries with Covid outbreaks etc should obviously face difference restrictions”.

The position of the UK is similar to the line taken by the EU.

The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control on Thursday said “screenings and travel measures on travellers from China [were] unjustified”, as potential imported infections were “rather low” compared with the numbers already circulating on a daily basis.

It also said that healthcare systems “are currently able to manage” Europe's caseload.

But a leading immunologist in the UK has said screening travellers from China for Covid is unlikely to prevent new variants reaching Britain.

Prof Andrew Pollard, chairman of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, expressed doubt that testing could prove effective in stopping variants reaching the countries.

“Trying to ban a virus by adjusting what we do with travel has already been shown not to work very well,” he told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme.

“We have seen that with the bans on travel from various countries during the pandemic.

“The important thing is that we have surveillance that when a virus is spreading within our population here in the UK or Europe we are able to pick that up and predict what might happen with the health systems and particularly the more vulnerable in the population.”

Minister of State for Health Will Quince said the biggest threat came from the potential for the emergence of new variants.

Updated: December 30, 2022, 12:34 PM