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New variants see Brussels and UK scramble to bring in new travel restrictions

The virulence of new variants of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes Covid-19 – and the fears that they may render vaccines bring rolled-out less effective – have seen Brussels and UK scramble to bring in new travel restrictions.

With Brits being told that anyone arriving back in the country will almost certainly soon have to pay for a 10-day stay in an airport hotel (or even one further afield), irrespective of any negative Covid tests they may be able to show, Europeans today are being told much the same – only slightly less starkly-packaged.

In a story entitled, “Brussels paints Portugal dark red and advises on all non-essential journeys” Público explains that the Commission is recommending that Member States adopt additional measures in terms of tests and quarantines “as quickly as possible” for all countries, particularly those “showing a high-risk of new contagions associated with the new variants”.

Says the paper, Portugal is among those countries as is “Spain, various regions of Italy and countries in the centre and north of Europe”.

Ylva Johansson, commissioner for internal affairs, said the Commission defends the obligation for a negative PCR test to be taken up to 72-hours before any trip by citizens from these countries, and the repetition of this test on arrival after compliance with obligatory quarantine.

In the case of entry into the EU space from 3rd countries, rules should be even more strict.

Brussels believes access should be temporarily prohibited for all travellers who don’t have a proven, valid and compelling reason to enter the EU, says Público.

“The priority must be to minimise transmission. The new measures we propose today include tests for all passengers and, in addition, for those who come from countries where the new variants were detected, the isolation for a period of 14 days, and the realisation of a new test”, said Didier Reynders, the European Justice commissioner.

Exceptions can be made in terms of humanitarian flights, essential work trips and family reunification, he said – but even in these instances, testing on departure and isolation on arrival “should be ensured”.

It was here that Ylva Johansson pointed out that it will be up to Member States “to determine whether this isolation can be accomplished at home, or whether these travellers can be directed to hotels or other places dedicated to quarantine surveillance”.

This story came hot-on-the-heels of reports from UK this morning that British prime minister Boris Johnson has confirmed his government is “definitely looking” at the possibility of quarantining all arrivals to UK in airport hotels.

The quarantine would have to be paid for by the incoming passengers, and last for a minimum of 10 days (more if they end up testing positive).

The news fell like a ton of bricks on the tourism industry, with radio stations starting phone-ins on the prospect of yet another year of enforced ‘staycations’.

“Are summer holidays cancelled in 2021?” LBC posed the question – trailing the idea that the current lockdown in UK could end up being extended to July.

The truth is not only can no-one know right now, Britain is running its response to the pandemic independently of anything done by the EU.

Updating journalists today on the progress of Portugal’s vaccination programme, health minister Marta Temido stressed authorities here will be continuing to administer the two-shot Pfizer vaccine as per the pharmaceutical manufacturers’ advice: within a 21-day period.

In UK the time-lag between the two shots has been extended to three months in a bid to get as many vulnerable people ‘protected’ with the first dose of the vaccine as quickly as possible. EMA, the European Medicines Agency, has still not evaluated the science behind this extension, said Ms Temido, confirming that by the end of January, Portugal should have vaccinated 100,000 of its most vulnerable citizens and front-line workers.

Talk of the variants in Portugal has been subdued since the start of the week: we know the highly-transmissible ‘possibly more deadly’ British variant is at work, particularly in the Lisbon/ Vale do Tejo area which is leading the way in terms of new infections.

Today (Monday) the latest bulletin has seen 3,111 new infections in the area round the capital – well over 1,000 more than were registered in the north, and almost three times the number flagged in the centre.

Monday however is a day traditionally where the tally of new cases is ‘down’ on real numbers due to testing centres performing less tests over the weekends.

News on Saturday from the national health institute Dr Ricardo Jorge was that a passenger infected with the ‘potentially vaccine-resistant’ South African variant was detected as having arrived in Portugal shortly after Christmas. Contact tracing has been going ahead – and as of Monday, very little more has been revealed.

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