PM 'ignored SAGE warning that only strictest quarantine would stop new variants'

2 February 2021, 09:32 | Updated: 2 February 2021, 15:06

By Patrick Grafton-Green

Scientists reportedly warned the Government weeks ago that only quarantine hotels for all arrivals or a total border shutdown would stop coronavirus variants from entering the country.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson outlined his plan last week for travellers coming from 30 "red list" countries to face up to 10 days in hotel self-isolation.

However the proposal was lighter than that advised by the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) a week before, according to The Times, and there is still no date for when it will be implemented.

READ MORE: Kent coronavirus mutation: What is the E484K strain and will it impact vaccine efficiency?

Shadow home secretary Nick Thomas Symonds and Mayor of London Sadiq Khan have been among those to attack the Government over its handling of the issue.

It comes amid concerns the more infectious South Africa variant is now spreading across England, with 80,000 people to be tested door-to-door in bid to find "every single case".

READ MORE: Door-to-door testing to root out 'every single case' of South Africa Covid variant

Asked by LBC’s Nick Ferrari whether quarantine hotels could apply to all arrivals, universities minister Michelle Donelan said: “Our policy is going to be for 30 countries that will adapt over time and we will take the best scientific and medical advice to inform those decisions.”

She said the Health Secretary would be “giving further clarity on exactly when this policy will begin”, but refused to put a date on it.

READ MORE: Boris Johnson 'ramping up preparations for reopening of schools' as Covid cases fall

Pressed by Nick over why it was taking so long, with reports suggesting it will not be implemented until February 15, Ms Donelan added: “I think we need to remember that this isn’t the only policy we have towards our borders.”

She said that SAGE had advised that “what we should be doing to focusing on quarantining and testing and that’s exactly what we’ve done”.

She continued: “At the moment we have a situation where people coming to the country have to have a negative PCR test, they have to have a passenger locator form, we’ve banned travel from certain countries... and we’ve been very clear to the British public that they shouldn’t be going on holiday at this time.”

Mr Thomas-Symonds called for the Home Office to "reverse this reckless policy of leaving our borders unlocked and open to further risk".

He said: "Ministers have knowingly left the UK border open and potentially exposed people to new strains of the virus, in direct contradiction of their own Government scientists' advice.

"This puts the gains of the vaccine at risk, with disastrous consequences for people's lives.

"The Home Secretary needs to come to Parliament urgently and reverse this reckless policy of leaving our Borders unlocked and open to further risk."

Mr Khan tweeted: “Time and again this Government has been indecisive and acted too late. Even the watered down restrictions won’t come in until 15 February.

“People are making huge sacrifices to suppress the virus here - the Government must do more to stop new strains from entering our country.”

Eleven cases of the South Africa variant identified over the past week were in people who had no links to travel, prompting concerns the mutation may now be spreading in communities.

The variant is thought to be as transmissible as the variant that was first identified in Kent but there is no evidence yet that it causes more severe disease.

Public Health England (PHE) is studying whether those who have already had the vaccine could need a booster shot "a bit like the annual flu vaccine" to help protect them against Covid-19 mutations, such as the South Africa, Brazil and Kent variants.

Dr Susan Hopkins, from PHE, said three different vaccines trialled so far had shown effectiveness against the South African variant at a level higher than the minimum standard set by the World Health Organisation and the US Food and Drug Administration.

"We expect all other vaccines to have a similar level of effectiveness, particularly in reducing hospitalisation and death," she said, adding that laboratory studies were being carried out to provide further evidence.