France should be added to the “red list” of countries from which most travel to the UK is banned to contain the spread of potentially vaccine-resistant Covid variants, Labour has said.
Concern is also mounting in government about the third wave of cases on the continent, which Boris Johnson has warned will “wash up on our shores”.
In particular, some regions of France are reporting relatively high levels of the South African variant of the disease – though these are falling.
England’s deputy chief medical officer, Jonathan Van Tam, set out data on the outbreaks in France and Germany in a presentation to MPs on Tuesday, which some interpreted as a call for tougher action – though Department of Health sources insisted it was merely a factual update.
Labour suggested it was time to add France to the red list of countries. That would mean travel would be banned for everyone apart from UK nationals and residents – and arrivals would have to quarantine in a hotel.
The shadow immigration minister, Holly Lynch, said: “The UK government is recklessly putting at risk progress being made by the vaccine by refusing to take action to secure our borders against Covid. The fact that they will not even add France to their own limited red list shows they continue to fail to understand the consequences of doing too little, too late.
“Rather than the prime minister waving a white flag and saying a third wave from Europe will inevitably ‘wash up on our shores’, the UK government should be urgently introducing a comprehensive hotel quarantine system to help guard against new variants. Instead of the current system that sees around just 1% of arrivals submit to hotel quarantine.”
The composition of the red list – which includes most South American and southern African countries – is reviewed regularly; but Downing Street sources played down the likelihood that France could be added imminently. A separate source suggested a decision on adding France to the red list could come next week.
However, two sources said the government was examining the use of using fast-turnaround Covid tests to check lorry drivers entering the country.
Freight is one of the exemptions from the restrictions on travel, and the high volume arriving into the UK from France is one reason officials believe tougher restrictions could be hard to enforce.
Ministers will face a separate decision in the coming weeks about whether to allow holidays to the continent this summer.
The prime minister’s roadmap states that foreign holidays cannot take place until 17 May at the earliest; but ministers hope to allow travel after that, in tandem with agreements on vaccine certification.
“We’re looking at it, we’re looking at the situation on variants; but it’s slightly too early to be able to make a decision: we need to keep monitoring the data,” said one official.
They added that all arrivals must already be tested, and quarantine at home if not in a hotel – and that travel is currently a tiny fraction of normal volumes, because holidays and most other journeys are banned.
France and Germany have both recently implemented fresh lockdown-style measures, and ministers will be monitoring the impact of these on case rates as the decision about summer travel looms.
The transport secretary, Grant Shapps, is chairing a global travel taskforce, which is due to report on 12 April.
The prime minister was due to face questions from senior MPs at the liaison committee on Wednesday afternoon.
The home affairs committee chair, Yvette Cooper, is expected to press him to do more to protect the progress made in the vaccination programme by cracking down on arrivals from the continent.
During his last appearance, Cooper implored Johnson to do more to contain the spread of the Brazilian variant. A few days later, the prime minister closed the “travel corridors” that allowed quarantine-free arrivals, and halted flights from a string of South American countries.