UK, France and Spain rush in new Covid controls for arrivals from China

The UK, Spain, and France have joined other countries imposing new controls on travellers from China as Covid-19 cases surge after Beijing scrapped pandemic restrictions.

Nations including the US, Japan, India and Italy had already announced compulsory Covid-testing on visitors from China as fears grew about new strains — although EU officials have resisted Italian calls for bloc-wide restrictions.

Scientific advisers in the British government had previously downplayed the need for new testing measures given the lack of evidence of any new variants emanating from China.

But millions of people are contracting infections in China each day following the abrupt abandonment of its draconian zero-Covid policy.

With British Conservative MPs calling on the government to act, prime minister Rishi Sunak authorised the new measures on Friday evening under which visitors from the Chinese mainland will require a negative Covid-19 tests before travel from January 5.

And from January 8 the UK Health Security Agency will carry out Covid tests on a sample of passengers arriving in England from mainland China at their point of arrival.

Health secretary Steve Barclay said it was right for the UK to take “a balanced and precautionary approach by announcing these temporary measures while we assess the data”.

France, which had also previously said there was no urgent need to change policy given the limited number of arrivals in Europe from China, shifted stance on Friday evening as well. It will now require a negative Covid-19 test before travel and for people on direct flights from China to wear masks, its government announced.

Earlier in the day the Spanish government said it would demand proof of vaccination or a negative coronavirus test from people arriving from China.

Madrid did not say when it would bring the measures into force but indicated they would come before January 8 when China will fully reopen its airports for international travel.

The unilateral responses revived memories of the chaotic days of March 2020, when the global spread of the virus became clear and national governments moved at drastically different speeds to impose border controls and national lockdowns.

Italy, Spain and the UK were among the European countries hardest hit in the early months of the pandemic.

Explaining Spain’s decision, health minister Carolina Darias said: “There is concern about the evolution of infections in China and about the difficulty of assessing the situation given the scarce information currently available.”

On Thursday, the EU’s health and security committee, made up of officials from member states, had agreed that “co-ordination of national responses to serious cross-border threats to health is crucial”, but failed to endorse Italy’s call for the bloc to test all air arrivals from China.

In a letter to the bloc’s health ministers seen by the Financial Times, Stella Kyriakides, European health commissioner, said there was “wide consensus that EU countries should act in a co-ordinated way if we want measures to be effective”.

But she called for “science-based” responses, such as surveillance of wastewater from airports, and said ministers should ensure they scaled up their gene-sequencing programmes to detect any new coronavirus variants.

“If a new variant of the Sars-Cov-2 virus appears — be it in China or in the EU — we must detect it early in order to be prepared to react fast,” she said.

“Reliable epidemiological data or testing data for China are quite scarce” and “the general vaccination coverage in China is low”, Kyriakides warned.

The commissioner also noted that Chinese-made vaccines were not valid as proof of vaccination under the EU-wide system, although Spain’s Darias said Madrid would accept proof of inoculation with any product recognised by the World Health Organization.

The WHO has approved widely used Chinese-made vaccines including those from Sinovac and Sinopharm.

The commission has already said that the BF.7 Omicron variant, prevalent in China, is already present in Europe.

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