Tourists and the travel industry expressed frustration and anger on Saturday after Britain rolled back a plan to ease travel restrictions in France just two days after they started, citing concerns over a variant of the coronavirus .
The move comes despite the fact that France currently has lower virus rates than the UK, where the highly contagious delta variant is leading to an increase in infections. On Saturday, Health Secretary Sajid Javid, who is in charge of the UK’s response to the coronavirus, said he had tested positive for Covid-19 and is self-isolating while awaiting the results of a second test.
Javid said in a video message that he had received both vaccines and that “so far my symptoms are very mild”.
Javid took over from Matt Hancock last month, who resigned after breaking social distancing rules. Hancock fell ill with Covid-19 at the start of the pandemic last year, and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson spent several days in intensive care with the virus in April 2020.
Britain currently has higher Covid-19 rates than France, with more than 51,000 new infections confirmed on Friday, the highest number in six months. Hospitalizations and deaths are also increasing, but remain well below previous peaks of infection.
Despite the surge in cases, the remaining restrictions are expected to be lifted in England on Monday, although the government is advising people to remain cautious and maintain social distancing. Face masks will still be required on London buses and subways and some other public transport networks.
In an announcement on Friday evening, the UK government said people arriving from France must self-isolate for 10 days upon entering Britain, even if they are fully vaccinated. The announcement came just days after the government said fully vaccinated UK residents would no longer be subject to quarantine from Monday when they arrived from dozens of countries classified as ‘amber’ or medium, on the system UK traffic lights of the risk of coronavirus. The Amber List includes the United States, Canada and much of Europe.
British health officials say France is being singled out because of cases of the beta variant, first identified in South Africa, which is believed to be more resistant to vaccines than other strains of the virus. The beta variant accounts for around 10% of cases in France, but much less than 1% of cases in Great Britain. In both countries, the delta variant first identified in India is dominant.
Epidemiologist John Edmunds, a member of the UK government’s science advisory group, said there is good evidence that beta “can more effectively evade the immune response generated by the AstraZeneca vaccine.”
The AstraZeneca vaccine has been used for the majority of UK vaccinations.
Before the pandemic, more than 17 million British residents visited France each year. Gemma Antrobus of the Association of Independent Tour Operators said Friday’s announcement took the travel industry by surprise.
“Nobody expected this to come,” she told the BBC. “So really the travel industry is as shocked as the consumers right now and we would really just have to pick up the pieces and face it and help our customers get through this pretty terrible situation.”
Georgina Thomas, a British nurse visiting her parents in western France, said she was “frustrated by the inconsistent approach taken by the government. It just doesn’t make sense.”
“If quarantine is needed so be it, but I am confident my risk will be higher when I return to the UK,” she said.
The government says an easing of restrictions is possible as nearly 90% of UK adults have received one dose of the vaccine and more than two-thirds have received both doses. Health officials say vaccines used in Britain – made by AstraZeneca, Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna – all offer strong protection against serious illness and death after two doses, although they do not prevent all infections. .
Tory lawmaker Jeremy Hunt, former UK health minister, said hospital admissions were on the rise and the pressure on healthcare warning light was “blinking red”.
“I think that in September we are almost certainly going to see infections reach a new daily high exceeding the daily level of 68,000, which was the previous daily high in January,” he told the BBC. “If they keep increasing as schools come back, I think we’re going to have to reconsider some very difficult decisions.”