The UK and France are introducing news rules for travellers.
Fully vaccinated adults returning from France to the UK from Monday will still have to quarantine, after a sudden U-turn by the British government announced late on Friday evening.
Boris Johnson, the prime minister, is set to tweak England’s “traffic light” system for foreign travel at the start of next week, so that adults coming back from amber list countries will no longer have to self-isolate for 10 days if they have had two Covid-19 jabs.
But France will be excluded from that relaxation under the new plan — even though it will technically remain on the amber list.
Meanwhile French Prime Minister Jean Castex said on Saturday that travellers arriving from the UK and some other European countries, would now need a negative PCR test taken no more than 24 hours before arrival unless they had been fully vaccinated.
British ministers had considered adding France to the red list to which people can only travel under strict hotel quarantine conditions that can cost thousands of pounds per family.
But they were reluctant to do so, given that the French border is such a critical route for travel and trade.
The government has in effect created a new, fourth category within the traffic light system: green; red; amber with self-isolation; and amber without self-isolation.
Grant Shapps, transport secretary, urged all travellers to check their terms and conditions as well as travel restrictions before they go: “Travel will be different this year and whilst we are committed to continuing to open up international travel safely, our absolute priority is to protect public health here in the UK,” he said.
The decision was taken even though the number of Covid-19 cases in France is only an eighth of the level in the UK.
Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer, has shown ministers data illustrating a rapid growth in the Beta variant first found in South Africa, according to industry and government figures.
Whitty is understood to be concerned that younger, unvaccinated people could bring back the virus in August ahead of the start of school terms.
French scientist say the Beta variant accounts for less than 5 per cent of cases in the country, down from 11 per cent in May, according to the latest genomic sequencing data. The Delta variant, by contrast, now accounts for more than 55 per cent of sequenced cases.
“In mainland France, Beta is not a concern currently, and it’s not more of a concern than it was a month ago,” said Florence Débarre, a theoretical evolutionary ecologist at the National Centre for Scientific Research.
Mircea Sofonea, an infectious disease modeller at Montpellier university, said that the UK response was reasonable. “The UK has vaccinated a lot with the AstraZeneca vaccine which is known to be less efficient against the Beta variant,” he said.
“I guess the UK would prefer to avoid a second threat to their vaccine coverage on top of the Delta wave, especially in the context of more population mixing because of summer tourism.”
A total of 904 cases of the Beta variant have been detected in the UK to date.
The Covid-19 situation in France is less severe than the UK, with roughly 53 out of every 100,000 people infected across mainland France, or around 4,800 new cases per day. There has however been a 78 per cent increase in cases over the past week, coupled with an 8 per cent increase in critical care hospital admissions over the same period, taking the average to 27 per day.
The only French territory where the Beta variant is a serious concern is La Reunion, an island close to South Africa, where 167 out of 100,000 inhabitants have Covid-19 and the variant is believed to account for 100 per cent of cases.
The Beta variant is dominant in the Indian Ocean department of Mayotte, although the overall Covid incidence rate is only at 6 cases per 100,000 inhabitants.
In Guyane, the overseas department on the north-east coast of South America, the majority of cases are the Gamma variant, which is thought to represent around 90 per cent of cases.
Sajid Javid, the UK health secretary, said: “We have always been clear that we will not hesitate to take rapid action at our borders to stop the spread of Covid-19 and protect the gains made by our successful vaccination programme.”
On Saturday afternoon, Javid released a statement saying he had tested positive for Covid-19. “Thankfully I have had my jabs and symptoms are mild”, he said.