The government is preparing to ban flights from Brazil in a bid to limit the cases of a new Covid variant reaching the UK, with an announcement expected on Thursday.
Boris Johnson dropped a heavy hint that travel restrictions could be imposed, as he was pressed by Labour MP Yvette Cooper at a cross-party liaison committee.
Cooper asked why the government had not stopped travel from Brazil, given the risks of the newly-identified variant of the disease.
“You were warned about the Brazil variant three days ago. We don’t know, yet, whether that variant could undermine the vaccination programme. Why aren’t you taking immediate action, on a precautionary basis?” Cooper asked.
The prime minister replied: “We are: we’re putting in extra measures to ensure that people coming from Brazil are checked: and indeed stopping people coming from Brazil.”
It is understood the government’s expert committee on new and emerging viruses, Nervtag, considered the implications of the Brazilian variant on Tuesday.
A decision on a travel ban is likely to be announced after a meeting of the ministerial covid-0 committee on Thursday – and could also include neighbouring countries.
It is not yet known whether the Brazilian variant is more transmissible than previous iterations of the disease – or whether it could be vaccine resistant.
Asked by Cooper whether he was contemplating a flights ban, Johnson repeatedly said the government was “taking steps”.
“We’re taking steps to stop the Brazil variant, as we’ve taken steps to stop the South African variant being imported into this country, as indeed the French took steps to prevent the Kent variant being imported into France: that’s what countries do,” he said.
Flights from South Africa were banned before Christmas, after a new strain of the disease was identified there. Cooper pointed to evidence showing that the virus had reached Europe from China via a series of routes early in the pandemic, not simply through direct flights.
“It’s nearly four weeks since we were warned about the South African variant, but if I wanted to travel from South Africa here today, I could get a flight via Dubai or Istanbul, with no test before I left, no test during, no test on arrival; go straight on to the tube from Heathrow, and then on to a train and travel home across the country,” she said.
The prime minister highlighted the negative Covid tests that will be required to enter England from Friday, but also pointed to the need for what he called a “balanced approach”.
“The reason that we’ve wanted to have a balanced approach in our border policy is obviously that you need to make sure that you’re balancing the threat to health with the threat to the economy,” he said.