Covid tests for arrivals from China are unlikely to prevent new variants reaching the UK, an expert has said.
After three years of closed borders, Beijing has finally shifted away from its strict zero-Covid policy by announcing plans to start reissuing passports and visas so citizens can embark upon overseas trips. But the change has prompted concern for a number of countries who may be receiving tourists from China, as the recent lifting of restrictions has sparked a wave of infections in the country.
The United States, India, Italy, South Korea, and Taiwan have all responded to the news by requiring visitors from China to be tested for the virus, while government ministers in the UK have said they will keep the situation “under review”. Britain’s health minister Will Quince added that the “key threat” was the potential for the emergence of new variants.
But now Professor Andrew Pollard, the chairman of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, has said the imposition of travel restrictions - such as screening travellers on arrival - is unlikely to stop variants reaching the UK.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “Trying to ban a virus by adjusting what we do with travel has already been shown not to work very well. We have seen that with the bans on travel from various countries during the pandemic. The important thing is that we have surveillance so 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.”
Professor Pollard added that any new variant which did appear in China was likely to be best-adapted to spreading amongst the Chinese population.
He explained: “The immunity in the [Chinese] population currently relates to vaccines that have been given in the population over the last couple of years and are different to the vaccines we have had and they have not had the extra immunity from having waves of Covid.
“So it is very difficult at this moment to tell whether a variant emerging in China is likely to have any impact here in the UK anyway. Testing people travelling from China probably doesn’t really answer the question about whether any new variant that is detected is going to be a problem here.”
When asked about the UK government’s position on travel restrictions for those arriving from China, Defence Secretary Ben Wallace said: “The government is looking at that, it’s under review. We noticed obviously what the United States has done and India and I think Italy has looked at it. We keep under review all the time, obviously, health threats to the United Kingdom, wherever they may be.”
But former health ministers Lord Bethell and Steve Brine were among those to place pressure on the government to change its mind. Lord Bethell, who was in post during the pandemic, urged ministers to rethink their policy and follow the “sensible” approach of Italy.
Meanwhile, former Tory minister Steve Brine warned that an already under-pressure NHS would not be able to cope if travellers from China brought over a new variant. He told Times Radio: “Now, let’s just say that lots and lots of Chinese nationals want to come and visit this country with a poor vaccine, and they end up getting sick. Then the NHS has frankly got enough on its plate right now without any emergency admissions, which it would of course have to deal with.”
China’s National Health Commission announced on 26 December that Covid will be downgraded to a Class B infectious disease on 8 January. Quarantine will be axed, although incoming travellers will be required to take a PCR test.
Authorities also said they would “optimise” visa arrangements for foreigners wishing to come to China for work and study, as well as for family visits, reunions, and tourism.
The lifting of restrictions came as a surprise to some health experts and economists, many of whom predicted the ruling Communist Party would maintain its strict policies until at least mid-2023. But President Xi Jinping’s government is reportedly trying to reverse an economic slump that resulted from the pandemic.
He perhaps has also further given in to the protests against the severe policies which rippled throughout the country, after relaxing some of the strictest restrictions a week after the unrest began.
Covid infections have surged in China since restrictions started lifting, with hospitals reporting they are overwhelmed and elderly people are dying. However, the true toll is unknown as officials have stopped releasing data on the disease.
The outbreaks have prompted complaints that Beijing relaxed controls too abruptly, but officials say the wave began before the restriction changes.