The Government’s decision to require travellers from China to produce a negative Covid test before flying to the UK has been defended by the chairman of the Commons Health and Social Care Committee.
The announcement on Friday brings the UK into line with a growing number of countries – including the US, Italy, India and Japan – in imposing new controls as Beijing reopens its borders.
Some scientists have said such measures are unlikely to prevent new variants reaching the UK, and former Tory leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith has expressed concern it could mark the first step on a return to domestic controls.
However committee head Steve Brine, a Conservative MP and former health minister, dismissed suggestions the Government was trying to “ban” the virus and said the measures were only necessary because Chinese authorities would not share their data with other countries.
“We are not repeating the Beijing folly of an unattainable zero-Covid policy. We are not screening it out at the border,” he told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme.
“What we are doing is introduce some pre-departure testing which will simply help reduce the number of infectious people on the flight and therefore arriving in the UK.
“This wouldn’t be happening if China was upfront and open and shared its data as many, many other countries do.
“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.”
Under the measures announced by Health Secretary Steve Barclay, from Thursday passengers flying from China into England will be required to take a Covid test before travelling.
The Government will also carry out surveillance testing of a sample of passengers to try to spot new variants which could pose a threat to people in the UK.
There are no direct flights from China to Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland but ministers have said they are working with the devolved administrations to implement the measures UK-wide.
The move comes as Beijing prepares to start reissuing passports and visas for overseas trips after the lifting of its zero-Covid controls which has seen a huge surge in infections.
The chairman of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, Professor Sir Andrew Pollard, has warned that “trying to ban a virus” through travel restrictions had “already been shown not to work very well”.
Sir Iain reportedly warned it could be a the start of a “slippery slope” leading to “a spiral of further tests and more lockdowns” which would be a “disaster” for the economy.
Mr Barclay, however, said the Government was taking a “balanced and precautionary approach” to allow time to assess the new data.
The UK Health Security Agency chief medical adviser, Professor Susan Hopkins, said so far the evidence suggested the upsurge in China was due to low natural immunity and lower vaccine uptake rather than new variants.
“In order to improve our intelligence, we are enhancing our surveillance, in addition to our current routine testing protocol,” she said.