UK resists COVID testing on travellers from China amid massive surge in cases

Travellers pass a sign for a COVID-19 test centre at Heathrow Airport, London, Britain, February 13, 2021. REUTERS/Toby Melville
A file image of a COVID test centre at Heathrow Airport in 2021. The UK has no plans to follow other countries which will test people arriving from China. (Reuters) (Toby Melville / reuters)

The UK is continuing to resist COVID testing on people travelling from China despite a “vehement” surge in cases.

Spain has become the latest nation to introduce testing requirements for visitors from China, following similar moves from countries including the US, India, Italy, South Korea and Taiwan.

It comes after China dropped its “zero COVID” approach of draconian restrictions, resulting in a huge spike of infections which its former chief epidemiologist, Zeng Guang, said was worse than expected. Some 80% of people in the capital, Beijing, are said to have been infected.

There are now concerns about the impact the spread will have on the rest of the world as overseas trips are once again permitted from next week onwards.

UK ministers, however, are continuing to resist testing on arrivals from China, saying it is keeping the situation “under review”. The EU’s disease prevention agency has also said screening is “unjustified”.

Watch: China's relaxation of travel restrictions explained

The approach has been backed by an independent government adviser, who said border restrictions are unlikely to prevent new variants reaching the UK.

Prof Andrew Pollard, who chairs the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, said it is surveillance of the virus within the UK that will be more important over the coming weeks.

He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Friday: “Trying to ban a virus by adjusting what we do with travel has already been shown not to work very well. We have seen that with the bans on travel from various countries during the pandemic.

Read more: China accused of covering up COVID data amid new variant fears

“The important thing is that we have surveillance that when a virus is spreading within our population here in the UK or Europe we are able to pick that up and predict what might happen with the health systems and particularly the more vulnerable in the population.”

Prof Pollard added any new variant which did appear in China was likely to be best-adapted to spreading in the Chinese population.

“The immunity in the population currently relates to vaccines that have been given in the population over the last couple of years and are different to the vaccines we have had and they have not had the extra immunity from having waves of COVID.

Read more: China says Covid travel restrictions imposed by other countries are ‘discriminatory’ as cases surge

“Testing people travelling from China probably doesn’t really answer the question about whether any new variant that is detected is going to be a problem here.”

Dr Kit Yates, a University of Bath academic who is part of the Independent SAGE group, which scrutinises the UK’s COVID policy, also said testing people arriving from China would be pointless “while we are doing so little to reduce transmission ourselves”.

However, Conservative MP Steve Brine, chair of the House of Commons health select committee, questioned the UK’s approach on Thursday, saying it would be better to “over-react than under-react”.

According to the Office for National Statistics' (ONS) latest COVID infection survey, about 1.4 million people in the UK had COVID in the week ending 7 December.