COVID-19: Concerns raised over UK borders being open

  • Flights from India continue to land in the UK despite COVID variant concerns
  • UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson insists that vaccines are working against Indian variant
  • Former advisor to the Prime Minister, Dominic Cummings, criticises UK COVID plan
  • EU agrees to reopen travel for non-EU visitors ahead of the summer holidays

As part of the UK’s lockdown reopening plans, international travel resumed in England, Wales and Scotland on May 17th.

Foreign countries were designated green, amber or red status for travel based on their COVID-19 situation, the prevalence of variants of concern and coronavirus vaccination programmes.

Brits travelling to “green list” destinations such as Portugal, Israel, Gibraltar, and Iceland can do so without self-isolating upon their return to the UK. Passengers arriving from amber nations will have to quarantine for ten days at home, while those returning from red-listed countries must quarantine in government-designated hotels.

While COVID rules differ depending on the destination, mixed messages from the UK government has led to growing confusion over whether it is safe to travel to countries categorised as “amber”.

On Tuesday, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson made it clear that people should not be going on holidays to amber-listed countries.

UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock also said that Brits should only travel to amber nations if they have an “absolutely compelling reason.”

However, Britain’s environment secretary, George Eustice, suggested that trips to amber destinations were fine if travellers adhered to quarantine rules on their return.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer criticised the UK government for its conflicting messages and urged Mr Johnson to provide “absolute clarity” on COVID rules for foreign travel.

Concerns have also been raised about the coronavirus spreading in airports due to holidaymakers from green list countries and passengers from red list destinations mixing in arrival halls.

Red list arrivals mixing with passengers from “safer” countries

Several MPs have expressed concern about long queues at British airports, inadequate ventilation, and poor management as travellers from “red list and green list destinations have been mixing in arrival halls”, says Caroline Lucas, Green Party MP.

Ms Lucas, who is the vice-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on COVID-19, said: “There is a real concern about the amount of time people are having to wait to get through the arrival halls, with people having to mull around for hours due to border checks.”

Her comments come amid worrying reports revealing direct and indirect flights out of India are arriving in the UK each day.

According to iNews, approximately 1,000 people could be entering Britain from India every day, despite warnings that the Indian variant may be more transmissible and deadly than other strains detected.

There were four direct flights from India into Heathrow Airport on Tuesday – three from Mumbai and one from Delhi – where the virus is notably rampant.

An additional four flights were scheduled to arrive on Wednesday, two from Delhi, one from Mumbai and a fourth from Bengaluru.

Meanwhile, data from the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) suggested that between April 2nd and April 12th, 900 people travelled to Britain from India.

Although passengers returning from India – classified as “red” under the British government’s traffic light system – are taken to quarantine hotels upon arrival, concerns have been raised about the virus spreading during hours-long queues in arrival lounges.

Since the All-Party Parliamentary Group committee meeting took place on Tuesday, there has been growing calls for the government to ban direct flights between India and the UK to reduce the risk of spreading.

Number of cases of the Indian variant climbing

While India’s infection rate appears to be declining, with the number of daily cases dropping below the 300K mark for the third successive day, the nation’s coronavirus death roll continues to soar. 

According to India’s health ministry, there have been an additional 4,529 COVID-related deaths in the last 24 hours, taking the country’s overall toll to 283,248.

In Britain, the infection rate continues to rise as UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock confirmed that cases of the Indian variant had jumped up from 2,323 to almost 3,000 in two days.

Despite the Indian variant being responsible for the increase in UK cases, Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson said that the latest data had given him “increasing confidence” that vaccines were working and would be effective against the India COVID variant.

UK vaccines effective against “all” variants

Although cases of the Indian variant have risen by 28% since Monday, Boris Johnson said that new data shows that vaccines circulating in the UK are effective against all COVID variants, including the Indian strain.

The data also revealed that Britain’s COVID case count had not shown any sharp increases or significant areas of concern in recent days.

Ministers have stressed that they want to analyse more data before deciding how to approach the next step, which could see UK reopening plans being delayed or local lockdown measures introduced in coronavirus hotspots.

However, some scientists have condemned the British government for relaxing COVID restrictions further on Monday, arguing that ministers ignored pre-conditions set for easing, with the fourth test requiring reopening plans to be delayed if new variants pose a threat.

Former advisor to the Prime Minister, Dominic Cummings, has issued an attack on the UK government’s response to the coronavirus crisis, branding the COVID plan as “part disaster, part non-existent.”

He called for more public scrutiny over how the British government plans to deal with new COVID variants, which may evade immunity.

Confusion and chaos over travel regulations and the Indian variant come ahead of an announcement from EU ambassadors on whether to lift travel restrictions against non-EU tourists.

Are Britons one step closer to holidaying in the EU?

Given that over 70% of Britain’s population has received their first COVID jab and a third of adults are fully vaccinated, the EU may add the UK to its “white list” of countries allowed to travel to the bloc from Friday 21st May.

Earlier this month, EU ambassadors backed plans to allow fully vaccinated EU citizens to travel to other member states restriction-free this summer.

An updated list of “safe” non-EU countries is expected to be released on Friday, which currently features low-risk destinations such as Australia, New Zealand, Singapore and Thailand.

Travellers from Russia and China will not be granted entry as vaccines circulating in these countries have not been approved by EU regulators.

However, countries such as the UK and America may meet the criteria due to their successful vaccination programmes and lower infection rate.

Still, a significant amount of doubt remains over whether British tourists would be required to quarantine or supply a negative COVID test to EU authorities due to the growing spread of the Indian variant in Britain.

Furthermore, if the EU believes that the epidemiological situation in Britain is too high a risk, they may decide not to add the UK at all.

EU leaders are currently discussing whether to integrate a universal system for testing and isolation across the bloc or each government to impose testing and quarantine requirements for tourists.

As it stands, Brits can travel quarantine-free to Greece under a separate agreement with the British government.

However, Brits travelling to Germany must provide a negative coronavirus test or self-isolate upon arrival due to the growing prevalence of the Indian variant in the UK.

If EU ambassadors cannot reach an agreement on testing and quarantine, the decision could be left to EU leaders at a May 25th summit.

While much remains uncertain at this point, if Britain is added to the EU’s white list, holidaymakers could enjoy less restrictive travel to popular destinations such as Spain, Italy and France.

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