The UK government has performed a U-turn and will require travellers from China to be tested for Covid-19 from early next year.
From 5 January, Chinese visitors to England will be required to show a negative Covid-19 test, taken two days before departing, in a move described as “balanced and precautionary” by the government.
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.
This brings the UK into line with other countries such as the US and Japan by introducing mandatory testing for travellers from China, amid concerns about surging case numbers in the Asian country.
China rolled back its severe anti-coronavirus restrictions in November, scrapping the use of quarantine camps and neighbourhood-wide lockdowns, after protests against the measures broke out across the country. It will also resume issuing visas and passports to its citizens in early January, easing strict travel restrictions.
Alarm has been mounting around the world about reports of an explosion in Covid cases, with doctors telling news outlets hospitals are being overwhelmed. China’s zero-Covid approach combined with a weak vaccination programme has left the population with relatively low levels of immunity, and there are fears about the potential for new variants to emerge if the virus runs rampant through the country.
However data on cases, hospitalisations and deaths is also unreliable in China and the figures can vary depending on the source, making it difficult to know what the true scale of the outbreak is. Despite this, government had said just days earlier that arrivals from China would not have to test to enter the UK, despite criticism from senior backbench Tories.
Now Health Secretary Steve Barclay has announced a rapid U-turn. The Department of Health stressed the new measures, which include plans for surveillance testing of a sample of passengers arriving into England, would be kept under “regular review”.
The Government said that China had failed to fully share information on the situation there, as cases soared after it relaxed its tough Covid-19 restrictions. Official WHO figures covering to 23 December put the cumulative number of Covid cases in China at 10.2 million. That would equate to fewer than 1% of its 1.4 billion-strong population having been infected.
NationalWorld’s research found that in the week to 23 December, China was reporting an average of 22,747 new cases per day, much fewer than the UK, despite having a far greater population.
“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,” Health Secretary Steve Barclay said.
“This allows our world-leading scientists at the UK Health Security Agency to gain rapid insight into potential new variants circulating in China.”
Responsibility will lie with airlines to check passengers’ negative tests, the Department of Health said. Alongside the US, India, Italy, South Korea and Taiwan have all set out plans to require visitors from China to be tested for the virus.
Some Tory MPs had been calling for a more robust response from the government, even as some experts had questioned the usefulness of such restrictions. Under the new rules, the Covid-19 test will need to have been taken no more than two days before departure.
Professor Sir Andrew Pollard, chairman of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, said on Friday morning: “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.”
He told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme: “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.”
The UK Health Security Agency (HSA) will carry out the surveillance testing from January 8. The HSA chief medical adviser Professor Susan Hopkins said staff would continue to monitor the spread of any new Covid-19 variants.
“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,” she said.
“In order to improve our intelligence, we are enhancing our surveillance, in addition to our current routine testing protocol.”
The Department of Health said that the volume of passengers arriving from China remains low, as it stressed that the best protection against Covid-19 remained getting vaccinated.