Ministers are coming under pressure to screen arrivals from China as the number of Covid-19 cases there continues to surge after Beijing’s abrupt decision to end most of its strict pandemic restrictions.
The US became the latest country to impose controls on travellers entering the country from China on Wednesday, demanding that all such arrivals show proof of a negative Covid test.
The UK government has so far refused to follow suit, although there were mixed messages on Thursday over whether that policy might change in the coming days.
The defence secretary, Ben Wallace, said: “The government has said it’s now going to keep that under review and review whether different countries with Covid outbreaks … should obviously face different restrictions.
“I think as we speak that is being reviewed, and I’ll expect to see some clarification I think by the Department for Transport probably today or tomorrow.”
No 10, however, was quick to dismiss talk of an imminent change in policy. A spokesperson said: “At the moment there are no plans to introduce any new Covid-19 testing for arrivals.”
Steve Barclay, the health secretary, met the chief medical officer and officials from the Health Security Agency on Thursday.
Following that meeting, Will Quince, the health minister, said there was no evidence of a new variant coming from China, which he described as “the key threat”.
He added: “At the moment the variant that is in China currently is already prevalent here in the UK.”
One official said any new restrictions would require a consultation process within the government, something that was not currently happening. “The health security agency is keeping the data under review, but so far nothing they are seeing is giving us cause for concern or reason to change our policy.”
The Liberal Democrats’ health spokesperson, Daisy Cooper, said: “Testing all travellers from and via China is a sensible first step, along with a fresh campaign for booster jabs and continuing to publish Covid modelling data during this period of uncertainty.”
The Conservative chair of the health select committee, Steve Brine, told Times Radio: “Let’s just say that lots and lots of Chinese nationals want to come and visit this country with a poor vaccine, they end up getting sick … the NHS has frankly got enough on its plate right now without any emergency admissions, which it would of course have to deal with.
“We know the lesson of two years ago was that time is of the essence … The public are a bit bemused that we are in this place, seemingly not having learned.”
The former Conservative health minister James Bethell said: “Living with the virus does not mean ignoring the virus. Italy has begun testing arrivals to make sure they are able to track new variants as they spread, and I think we should be doing the same.”
Some leading scientists have also called on the government to do more to monitor the spread of potential new variants from China and elsewhere, following the example of a number of other countries.
Italy, Japan, India, South Korea and Taiwan are all demanding arrivals from China show negative tests, and Malaysia has announced new tracking and surveillance measures.
The announcements come as Chinese hospitals struggle to cope with an influx of patients after the government’s decision on Monday to reverse its zero-Covid policy. Experts have cast doubt on Beijing’s official death toll, but the British health data modelling company Airfinity estimated this week that the country was experiencing more than a million new cases and 5,000 Covid-related deaths a day.
Rowland Kao, an epidemiologist at the University of Edinburgh and a member of the government’s scientific advisory group, said: “Infection rates in China are very high at the moment, and with uncertainty about what variants are actually circulating there and the extent of infection, there is a lot we don’t know.”
He said he thought it would be worth testing arrivals from every other country, but mainly to be able to monitor different variants. “I think it would be worthwhile to have lateral flow tests, then PCR tests for everyone who tests positive,” he said. “The only thing you’d really be doing is looking for variant information at the border.”
Other government scientific advisers believe there would be little use in screening arrivals from China, given how high infection rates are already in the UK. Speaking in a personal capacity, Mark Woolhouse, another epidemiologist at the University of Edinburgh, said: “I doubt very much these new travel policies will have a material impact on Covid trajectories in the countries implementing them.
“The UK did the same to South Africa a little over a year ago when Omicron was first reported. That had no detectable impact at all. Omicron was already here.”