LONDON (Reuters) – People entering England and Scotland will have to show a negative COVID-19 test result starting next week as authorities try to ramp up protection against new, more infectious strains of the coronavirus from other countries.
Passengers arriving by boat, plane or train will have to take a test a maximum of 72 hours before departure, mirroring measures taken last year by other countries around the world.
“We already have significant measures in place to prevent imported cases of COVID-19, but with new strains of the virus developing internationally we must take further precautions,” Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said.
He said there were concerns that vaccines might not work properly against the highly transmissible variant of the coronavirus discovered in South Africa, echoing recent comments from other government officials.
On Thursday, Britain said it would extend a ban on travellers entering England from South Africa to include other southern African countries, and non-essential travel in and out of the United Kingdom is restricted.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson ordered a new lockdown for England this week after a surge in cases linked to another variant of the virus believed to have originated in the country.
Scotland, which like the rest of the United Kingdom has tight COVID-19 restrictions in place, said it too would require travellers to show negative tests and the rule is also expected to be applied by Wales and Northern Ireland.
Passengers from many countries are currently required to self-isolate for 10 days, or five if they pay for a private test and test negative. Those requirements will remain in place after the new pre-departure testing rule comes into effect.
Britain’s airlines industry recognised the need to introduce pre-departure testing but said it should be only a short-term, emergency measure.
“Once the roll-out of the vaccine accelerates, the focus must be on returning travel to normal as quickly as possible in order to support the UK’s economic recovery,” said Tim Alderslade, chief executive of Airlines UK, an industry group.
“What we’d like to see is that testing before you take off becomes the standard as an alternative to quarantine,” said John Holland-Kaye, chief executive of Britain’s biggest airport Heathrow.
Travel to and from Britain has been almost wiped out by COVID-19 and the quarantine requirements, leaving many airlines and airports fighting for survival.
Exemptions to the new testing requirement rule in England would be offered to hauliers, children under 11, crews and people travelling from countries where tests are not available.
Passengers will be subject to a fine of 500 pounds (US $678.30) if they fail to comply with the new regulations.
London declares emergency
London declared a major incident on Friday because its hospitals were at risk of being overwhelmed by a highly transmissible variant of the coronavirus racing “out of control” across the United Kingdom.
Britain has the world’s fifth-worst official death toll from COVID-19 at over 78,000, and Prime Minister Boris Johnson has shuttered the economy and rushed out vaccines faster than its neighbours in a bid to stem the pandemic.
London Mayor Sadiq Khan, from the opposition Labour Party, said hospital beds in the capital would run out within the next few weeks because the spread of the virus was “out of control”.
“We are declaring a major incident because the threat this virus poses to our city is at crisis point,” he said.
London, which vies with Paris for the status of Europe’s richest city, has a population of more than 9 million.
The designation of “major incident” is usually reserved for attacks or grave accidents, notably those likely to involve “serious harm, damage, disruption or risk to human life or welfare, essential services, the environment or national security”.
London’s last “major incident” was the Grenfell Tower fire in a high-rise residential block in 2017, when 72 people died.
Khan said there were parts of London where one in 20 people had the virus. The pressure on the ambulance service, which was now dealing with up to 9,000 emergency calls a day, meant firefighters were being drafted in to drive vehicles, and police officers would follow.
The Office for National Statistics estimated that 1.1 million people in England had the coronavirus in the week to 2 Jan., the equivalent of one person in 50.
Britain, the first country to approve vaccines made by Pfizer-BioNTech and AstraZeneca, on Friday approved Moderna’s shot, hoping to begin administering it this spring. It also agreed to purchase an additional 10 million doses.
However, Shapps said there were fears that some vaccines might not work properly against a highly contagious variant of the coronavirus that has emerged in South Africa.
“This is a very big concern for the scientists,” he told LBC radio.
A laboratory study by the U.S. drugmaker Pfizer, not yet peer-reviewed, indicated that the vaccine it is making, developed by Germany’s BioNTech, does work against one key mutation in the new variants found in Britain and South Africa.
(Reporting by Michael Holden, Alistair Smout, Andy Bruce and Kate Holton; writing by Guy Faulconbridge and William Schomberg; Editing by Kevin Liffey, Daniel Wallis and Catherine Evans)