The UK government has announced it will follow other countries by requiring travelers from China to provide a negative COVID-19 test from early next year.
From Jan. 5, people flying from mainland China to England will be asked to take a pre-departure test taken no more than two days prior to departure, the government announced on Dec. 30.
In addition, the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) will launch new surveillance measures on Jan. 8, which will see a sample of passengers arriving in England from mainland China tested for COVID-19 at the point of their arrival.
The government said the measures have been introduced “due to a lack of comprehensive health information shared by China.”
“If there are improvements in information sharing and greater transparency then temporary measures will be reviewed,” it added.
There are no direct flights from China to Scotland, Wales, or Northern Ireland, but the government said it would be working with the devolved administrations to ensure measures are implemented across the UK.
UK Health Secretary Steve Barclay said: “As COVID cases in China rise ahead of them reopening their borders next week, it is right for us to take a balanced and precautionary approach by announcing these temporary measures while we assess the data. This allows our world leading scientists at the UK Health Security Agency to gain rapid insight into potential new variants circulating in China.”
He reiterated the government’s position that “the best defense against the virus” remains the vaccine, and urged people to come forward for vaccines or boosters.
Monitoring New Variants
Under the new measures, passengers arriving at London Heathrow Airport will be invited to take part in the study and all positive samples will be sent for sequencing.
“This will further enhance the UK’s ability to identify any new variants which may be circulating in China that could evade the immune response of those already vaccinated or which have the potential to successfully outcompete other variants and spread internationally,” the government said.
Professor Susan Hopkins, chief medical advisor at UKHSA, said: “The evidence suggests the recent rise in cases in China is due to low natural immunity and lower vaccine uptake including boosters rather than the emergence of new COVID-19 variants—unlike in the UK where vaccines are maintaining high population protection. But in order to improve our intelligence, we are enhancing our surveillance, in addition to our current routine testing protocol.
“COVID-19 cases continue to rise at home too and it remains important to try to stay at home if you are unwell, wash your hands regularly, try to keep rooms well ventilated, and remember the best protection is to get your booster jab if eligible.”
A growing list of nations has adopted entry curbs on visitors from China in response to the massive COVID-19 wave sweeping the country on the heels of the Chinese regime’s abrupt lifting of stringent zero-COVID restrictions earlier this month without adequate preparation.
In the first 20 days of December, 248 million people in China likely have become infected, according to an internal meeting memo of China’s top health body that leaked online. The number dwarfs the COVID-19 data and death tally officially released so far, which international experts and evidence on the ground show to be vastly disproportionate to the actual scale of the outbreak.
The US government announced on Dec. 28 that, starting on Jan. 5, all travelers from China will be required to take a COVID-19 test no more than two days before travel and provide a negative test before getting on their flight.
US officials said that the Chinese regime’s lack of transparency during the current outbreak was a key factor for the imposition of the new travel restrictions.
The US entry curbs followed in the footsteps of China’s neighboring nations and regions such as India, Malaysia, Japan, and Taiwan.
Italy, Spain, and France have also made COVID-19 testing mandatory for people arriving from China.
Italy urged the European Union to follow its lead and test travelers from China, but the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) said on Dec. 29 that it considered “screenings and travel measures on travelers from China unjustified.”
The UK’s new COVID-19 border measures mark a screeching U-turn on the part of the government, which suggested just two days ago that travelers from China would not be screened for the virus.
A government spokesperson said on Dec. 28 that there were “no plans to reintroduce COVID-19 testing or additional requirements for arrivals into the UK,” despite a growing list of nations having adopted entry curbs on visitors from China.
The policy reversal came after some senior Conservative MPs called for a more robust response from the government.
Lord Bethell, who was health minister during the pandemic, urged ministers to follow the “sensible” approach of Italy by screening travelers for the virus upon arrival.
Steve Brine, another former health minister, warned that the National Health Service (NHS) would not be able to cope if travelers from China brought over a new variant.
But Professor Andrew Pollard, chairman of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunization (JCVI) said that screening China arrivals for COVID-19 is unlikely to prevent new variants from reaching the UK.
“Trying to ban a virus by adjusting what we do with travel has already been shown not to work very well,” he told the BBC Radio 4 Today program on Dec. 30.
“The important thing is that we have surveillance that when a virus is spreading within our population here in the UK or Europe we are able to pick that up and predict what might happen with the health systems and particularly the more vulnerable in the population.”
PA Media contributed to this report.