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The UK government has been accused of putting lives at risk with a botched border policy after it banned arrivals from South America and Portugal several days after concerns emerged about a new Brazilian variant of Covid.
The transport secretary, Grant Shapps, announced that arrivals from more than a dozen countries including Argentina, Venezuela, Bolivia and Peru would be halted. He said Portugal had also been included because of its close travel links with Brazil.
It is unclear as yet whether the Brazilian strain may be vaccine-resistant. UK citizens and permanent residents will be exempt from the travel ban but they and their families will have to self-isolate for 10 days on arrival.
The shadow home secretary, Nick Thomas-Symonds, welcomed the measures as necessary but criticised the government’s failure to implement more systematic checks on arrivals.
“This is yet another example of government incompetence, lurching from one crisis and rushed announcement to another. The failure to put in place an effective policy on testing before entry and a quarantine system that is checking only one in 100 people is putting lives at risk,” he said.
The new measures came 24 hours after Boris Johnson was pressed by Labour’s Yvette Cooper about why he had not taken more urgent action in response to reports about the Brazilian strain of the virus.
Cooper welcomed the travel ban on Thursday but warned: “We know from the first wave of the Covid crisis that focusing just on direct flights isn’t sufficient. We still need a proper testing and quarantine system for airports and ports as other countries have.”
She called the government “irresponsible” for delaying its new testing regime for all arrivals to the UK at the last minute, pointing out that the Brazilian strain had been identified in Japan by testing of passengers in airport quarantine.
The new testing system, which will require travellers to have a negative Covid test before coming to the UK, has been pushed back from Friday morning to Monday after a backlash from travel companies and tourists who complained the government had failed to provide enough guidance to operate the scheme effectively.
The prime minister’s spokesperson defended the last-minute delay, calling it a “grace period”. “We always said we would introduce the regulations on Friday, and the laws still come into force on Friday, but we’ve implemented a grace period over the weekend so that passengers can have a little bit more time to get access to the tests they need that meet our requirements,” he said.
The safeguarding minister, Victoria Atkins, had earlier suggested the delay had been made for business reasons. Speaking to Sky News, she said: “There’s a very delicate balancing act here between controlling the virus but also ensuring that we are not putting too much of a burden on the economy.”
Travellers will need to present proof of a negative test result to their carrier upon boarding, and UK Border Force will conduct spot checks on arrivals. Arrivals who flout the rules will face a minimum £500 fine, and the operator who transported them will also be fined. Passengers will still have to quarantine for 10 days regardless of their test results.
The guidance specifying the type of tests and documentation that would be required was not published on the government’s website until late on Wednesday, making it almost impossible for potential inbound travellers abroad to arrange tests in time for the original deadline.
The decision on the travel ban was made at a meeting of the ministerial Covid-O committee on Thursday morning on the basis of evidence from experts on the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag) on new viruses.
Government sources said devolved administrations supported Shapps’s decision, with Wales and Scotland poised to announce similar action.
Johnson had hinted at fresh restrictions on Wednesday when he was grilled by MPs about the issue, telling Cooper: “We’re putting in extra measures to ensure that people coming from Brazil are checked: and indeed stopping people coming from Brazil.”
Direct flights between Brazil and the UK were banned last month as the Brazilian government tried to prevent the highly transmissible English variant of the virus arriving on its shores.
The UK government has been criticised throughout the pandemic for failing to act rapidly enough to control the borders.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: UK to ban travellers from South America and Portugal from Friday | Politics