England has joined a growing list of countries to insist that travellers from mainland China have a negative COVID-19 test before flying.
The measures come into force on Thursday January 5following a rapid surge in COVID cases in China after the country lifted restrictions ahead of opening up its borders.
Anyone flying to England from mainland China will need to show a negative COVID-19 test to their airline, taken no more than 2 days before departure, before being allowed to board a plane.
Although there are no direct flights from China to Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland, the government says it's working with the devolved nations to make sure this policy is implemented UK-wide as soon as possible.
No Quarantine If Positive Test
In addition, from Sunday January 8 the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) is launching surveillance which will see a sample of people arriving from China tested for COVID-19 when they land in England, to try to monitor for new variants of the virus which may pose a threat.
It’s understood these tests will be voluntary and if a traveller does test positive for COVID-19 on arrival in England they won’t have to quarantine. Transport Secretary Mark Harper told LBC that the move to test those coming into the country was about "collecting information".
A DHSC spokeswoman confirmed in a statement that testing upon arrival would be optional.
She said: "We encourage people at the border to take a test to help themselves, their families and wider knowledge on COVID. However, the testing is optional and people can decline if they wish to do so."
Monitoring Possible New Variants
The Government said that the "series of precautionary and temporary measures" were being introduced because of a lack of comprehensive health information shared by China.
Passengers at Heathrow Airport will be invited to take part in the study and all positive samples will be sent for sequencing. This will help enhance the UK's ability to identify any new variants which may be circulating in China that could evade the immune response of those already vaccinated or which have the potential to successfully outcompete other variants and spread internationally.
Other countries announcing new measures to test travellers from China to determine whether new COVID variants are circulating include the US, Italy, Japan, Republic of Korea, Spain, Malaysia, and India.
No Evidence of New Variants to Date
It does appear as though the variants circulating in China are the same as those seen in the UK and elsewhere in Europe, according to the available genomes from China and other countries where testing has occurred.
While there is currently no data to suggest there are previously unknown or potentially harmful variants circulating, the new surveillance measures will help detect them if they do arise.
Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, Steve Barclay, said: "As COVID-19 cases in China rise ahead of them reopening their borders next week (Sunday) it is right for us to take a balanced and precautionary approach by announcing these temporary measures while we assess the data.
"This allows our world leading scientists at the UK Health Security Agency to gain rapid insight into potential new variants circulating in China."
He went on to say that the best defence against the virus remained the COVID vaccine, with NHS staff delivering over 150 million jabs across the UK.
Prof Susan Hopkins, chief medical adviser at the UKHSA said the Agency "continues to closely monitor the prevalence and spread of new SARS-CoV-2 variants and keep available international data under review". She continued: "The evidence suggests the recent rise in cases in China is due to low natural immunity and lower vaccine uptake including boosters rather than the emergence of new COVID-19 variants – unlike in the UK where vaccines are maintaining high population protection. But in order to improve our intelligence, we are enhancing our surveillance, in addition to our current routine testing protocol."
Beijing has condemned the introduction of COVID-19 testing for passengers. A Chinese official said "we do not believe the entry restriction measures some countries have taken against China are science-based" and warned that the country could "take corresponding measures in response".
The situation remains under review and the UK Government says it's working with China on next steps. If there are improvements in information sharing and greater transparency then the temporary measures would be reviewed, it maintained.