The requirement for travellers from China to England to provide a negative Covid test before departure could have been avoided if Beijing was “upfront” about its data, the chair of the Commons health committee has said.
Rishi Sunak announced a major U-turn on Friday by imposing checks on travellers from China from 5 January, after criticism from a growing number of Conservative MPs over his “dithering”.
The prime minister’s latest reversal was welcomed by the chair of the Commons health and social care committee, Conservative MP Steve Brine, who said the measures had been avoidable.
“This wouldn’t be happening if China was upfront and open and shared its data as many, many other countries do,” he told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme.
“We are not repeating the Beijing folly of an unattainable zero-Covid policy. We are not screening it out at the border.
“What we are doing is introducing some pre-departure testing which will simply help reduce the number of infectious people on the flight and therefore arriving in the UK.”
However, he rejected concerns from former Tory party leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith that it could be the first step on a return to domestic controls in the UK.
Brine said: “This is not about reintroducing domestic restrictions in this country. We have a largely successfully vaccinated population. We have long ago learned to live with Covid. There is no creep here.”
After a series of seemingly mixed messages about whether the UK would follow the lead of Spain, Italy, Israel, the US and India in screening arrivals, Sunak backed the move to bring the UK into line with its allies in a change of policy on Friday.
The UK Health Security Agency will also initiate surveillance from 8 January that will see a sample of passengers arriving in England from China tested for the virus as they arrive.
Covid cases in China continue to surge after Beijing’s abrupt decision to end most of its strict pandemic restrictions.
The health secretary, Steve Barclay, said the UK was taking a “balanced and precautionary approach”, describing the measures as “temporary” while officials assess the latest Covid data.
He said: “This allows our world-leading scientists at the UK Health Security Agency to gain rapid insight into potential new variants circulating in China.
“The best defence against the virus, however, remains the vaccine. NHS staff have done an incredible job delivering over 150m jabs across the UK. It isn’t too late to come forward for your first, second, third, or autumn booster.”
Meanwhile, David Davis, a former cabinet minister, said it would be “pretty sensible” to require all arrivals from China to be Covid tested.
Concerns about the ability to track any potential new variants have led No 10 to bring forward a “clarification” promised by defence secretary Ben Wallace earlier this week.
Because travel is a devolved matter the decision will affect England only. However, all direct flights from China are said to land in England.
The government said airlines will be required to check that passengers from China have a negative Covid test before departure, with travellers required to show evidence that their result was negative.
The move is designed to align with the US’s policy, and is being taken because of what the government believes is a lack of reliable data from China.