THE South African coronavirus variant is the single biggest threat facing the UK, the Labour leader has said, amid growing calls for the country to tighten its defences against new variants.
Keir Starmer said it was important to “secure our borders” after concerns were raised that the Oxford/AstraZeneca jab may be less effective against the South African variant.
The government admitted on Monday that it had still not signed contracts with any hotel chains to provide quarantine for travellers from hotspot countries, including South Africa and Brazil, who will be required to stay in hotels for 10 days upon arrival in the UK.
Travel is already barred from most of the countries in question.
Yvette Cooper, the chair of the home affairs select committee, also issued an urgent call for tougher measures, and said there were “far too many holes” in the government’s border policy, which permits most new arrivals to travel on public transport to their homes to isolate and does not test on arrival.
Speaking to reporters in Thurrock, Essex, Starmer said: “I think the South African variant is the single biggest risk at the moment. It’s very important therefore that we secure our borders. We have known about the South African variant for some time. If you can believe it, it’s going to be 50 days from knowing about the variant to border restrictions, quarantining in hotels, coming in.
“Add to that – and this is probably the most significant thing – a number of other countries we now know have the South African variant, and they are not even in the government scheme for quarantining in hotels. This is leaving a back door open at a vital stage in the battle against the virus.”Cooper, the former shadow home secretary, said it was alarming that over half the countries with cases of the South Africa variant were not on the UK’s red list, despite the potential threat it poses to the vaccine programme.
Of the 41 countries that have reported cases of the South African variant, 29 have not been added to the UK’s red list. They include Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Greece, Japan, Kenya, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland and the United States. Of the 10 countries that have found cases of the Brazilian strain, six have not been added.
“Once again their focus is on a small number of hotspot countries, but we know how quickly variants can cross borders, and we know from last spring that less than 0.1% of cases came to the UK from China, but 62% came from France and Spain, which were treated as low risk with no restrictions in place,” Cooper said.
“Most travellers will still be able to go straight on to the tube or train without being tested at the airport. Many other countries have more extensive hotel quarantine and stronger home quarantine arrangements including airport testing, quarantine taxis, and proper checks on people at home. The UK should be learning from them. If we want to protect our vaccine programme, we urgently need stronger measures at the borders to stop new variants from being imported.”
The government is facing questions over its preparedness for the introduction of the quarantine policy after it emerged that no formal contracts had been awarded to hotels to quarantine arrivals from countries on the “red list”, even though the policy enters into force next week.
The policy will apply to UK nationals and residents returning from 33 countries. All others must self-isolate at home.
Downing Street issued a commercial specification on Thursday evening, but no contracts have yet been agreed.
Speaking on Monday, Boris Johnson suggested border controls could be increased even as the UK greatly reduces its own infection rate. “They are most effective, border controls, when you’ve got the rate of infection down in your country,” he said.
“And at the moment we’ve greatly reduced the rate of infection from the peak, where it was a few weeks ago, but it’s still extremely high, and for border controls really to make that final difference, so you can isolate new variants as they come in, you need to have infections really much lower so you can track them as they spread.”
The shadow home secretary, Nick Thomas-Symonds, said it “beggars belief” that no agreements on hotels had been reached. “It will be over 50 days since the South African strain was identified and nearly a year since other countries have been successfully implementing hotel quarantine,” he said.
“Even when these measures eventually do begin, scientists have made clear that the limited way they are being introduced will be insufficient to stop mutant strains of the virus reaching the UK, potentially putting the gains of the vaccine at risk. Conservative incompetence is yet again putting people at risk.”