Shapps: Travel curbs needed to prevent 'tragedy' of South Africa variant entering UK

8 January 2021, 09:29 | Updated: 8 January 2021, 11:37

Nick Hardinges

By Nick Hardinges

Travel restrictions have been introduced to prevent the "tragedy" of the South Africa coronavirus variant entering the UK, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps has told LBC.

Speaking on Nick Ferrari at Breakfast, the Cabinet minister said the South African strain "is a very big concern for scientists" as it may not respond to vaccines in the same way.

It comes after the government announced that international travellers will need to show a negative Covid test before being allowed into England and Scotland - with Wales and Northern Ireland considering similar measures.

The move means anyone entering the two nations by plane, train or ferry will need to have taken a government-specified test up to 72 hours before departure.

Mr Shapps told LBC that the ministers must do everything they can to keep the variant out of the UK otherwise it could prove to be a "big game-changer" in Britain's response to the pandemic.

Read more: International travellers to England and Scotland to need negative Covid test

Explained: What are the latest rules around border testing and how will it affect travel?

"This is a very big concern for the scientists," the transport secretary said.

"The South African variant is worrying the experts because it may be that the vaccine doesn’t respond in the same way or doesn’t work in quite the same way and, if that were the case, it would be a tragedy to allow that into the country.

"We need to do everything we possibly can to prevent it.

"It’s much more urgent and pressing than the classic version of coronavirus already here.

"One or two more cases doesn’t change things dramatically, but the new variant, that could be a big game-changer.

"We don’t want to see that, and that’s why (we're acting) now."

Read more: Flights from South Africa stopped after Covid variant found in UK

Read more: Gove tells LBC flight restrictions ‘may go further’ than South Africa ban

Early research has suggested the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine can protect against a mutation (called N501Y) found in the two Covid strains first seen in the UK and South Africa.

However, scientists are still anxious over the South Africa variant as it contains a separate mutation (called E484K) that was not tested in the study.

Meanwhile, explaining how the latest travel restrictions will work, Mr Shapps said the delay between announcing Covid test border checks and implementing them until next week is to avoid a "repatriation crisis".

The transport secretary told LBC that the measure is "an addition to, rather than instead of, the much tougher thing we are already doing which is, of course, quarantine."

He said: "Before you come here, up to 72 hours before, you must have taken a recognised test as a condition of travel. You won't be able to get on that train, plane or ferry to come to the country unless you've had the test."

The Cabinet minister described a recognised test as one that Public Health England (PHE) and others "will have specified" as being accurate and of a sufficient standard.

"But, it doesn't matter if the test is 100 per cent accurate. Simply getting a test before you come here is not a way to know that you are coronavirus-free, it simply shows that you're not displaying the coronavirus tracers at the moment that you take that test.

"That's why it's an additional level and it's why this isn't the first thing that we've done."

He explained that quarantining is "a much more powerful tool" for stopping the transmission of Covid-19 than testing.

Mr Shapps then said the names of eligible tests will be listed on the government's website: "Say you're in France, you'll be able to have a look at the site and clearly be provided with a list of the different tests that would be applicable for somebody who's in that particular location."

With the measure coming into effect from Wednesday or Thursday next week, the transport secretary was asked why there was such a long delay between the announcement and its implementation.

"The most important thing is that people quarantine. That is the only thing that guarantees, when you come back from somewhere, that you're not spreading the disease somewhere else," he said.

"The addition of this test is to try to deal with just the bit where people are on the plane and potentially infect somebody else on that plane, so it's one additional slice to it.

"You've got to announce these things at some point and then you've got to bring them in. If we don't provide any notice in between, what we'll get is a load of Brits stuck abroad and we'll have a repatriation crisis."

He also told Nick the airline, train or ferry one travels with will check people's documentation to see that they have had a test and that individuals will not be allowed onboard without providing that information.

However, people who travel to and from the UK all day as a part of their job, such as hauliers, aircrew and border workers, will be among the "relatively few" exclusions from the measure.

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