Portugal drawn into South American travel ban in bid to block spread of Brazilian Covid strain

Charles Hymas
·3-min read
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Portugal has been included in a South American travel ban as the Government moved to prevent the spread of a new highly-contagious strain of Covid from Brazil.

Grant Shapps, the Transport Secretary, said he was taking “urgent'' action to stop the Brazilian variant reaching Britain by all travel from South America, encompassing a total of 14 countries.

Portugal and Cape Verde have been drawn into the ban because of their “strong” travel links with Brazil.

The ban - which takes effect from Friday at 4am - is wider than previously thought but British and Irish nationals and foreign residents in the UK will not be subject to the total block although they will have to quarantine for ten days on their arrival in the UK.

There is also an exemption for hauliers travelling from Portugal (only), to allow transport of essential goods.

The full list of countries is Brazil, Argentina, Bolivia, Cape Verde, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, French Guiana, Guyana, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Suriname, Uruguay and Venezuela.

Sir Patrick Vallance, the UK's chief scientific adviser, has said it is possible that the Brazilian Covid variant could make vaccines less effective.

He said he thinks it is unlikely the mutated strain of the virus will have evolved to get past the immune system but “we don't know for sure.”

The curbs, confirmed by the Covid O Cabinet sub-committee chaired by Michael Gove on Thursday, mirror the travel ban on South Africa where a similar highly transmissible strain of Covid has also emerged.

Boris Johnson admitted on Wednesday that officials were “concerned” about the variant and claimed the Government was “taking steps” to ensure it did not spread in Britain.

Brazil has already banned travellers from the UK, starting on December 25, because of the variant that emerged here.

Airlines preempted the ban by scrapping five flights scheduled between Brazil and Heathrow,.

Public Health England (PHE) said it had not picked up any cases of the variant yet, but wouldn't rule out its already being in Britain.

Professor Susan Hopkins, who is Strategic Response Director for Covid-19 with Public Health England, told BBC Breakfast that experts were looking at the Brazilian variant and needed to grow the virus in the UK in order to perform laboratory experiments.

"So we need to understand the biology of these [new strains], as well as understanding mutations," she said. "We will be watching them all to make sure that they can't escape your immune response, which is the key thing that we're looking at the moment."

Mr Shapps also said that Chile, Madeira, and the Azores would be removed from the travel corridor list of countries were passengers are not required to self-isolate for up to 10 days on return.

He said introducing tougher measures was an 'urgent decision' so that the UK did not 'trip up at this late stage' of the pandemic, pointing to the three million vaccines that have been administered.

The move was welcomed by other parties, but the Government was attacked for the delay, which was branded 'another missed opportunity'.

Labour's shadow home secretary Nick-Thomas-Symonds MP said it was 'yet another example of government incompetence, lurching from one crisis and rushed announcement to another.

'The failure to put in place an effective policy on testing before entry and a quarantine system that is checking only one in 100 people is putting lives at risk.'

Lib Dem MP and party transport spokeswoman Sarah Olney said: 'Once again it seems the Conservatives have missed the opportunity to help stem the spread of Covid-19. 'They've delayed action on cutting travel between the UK and South America, risking the arrival of the new variant.'

The crackdown was also at odds with the situation at Heathrow on Thursday, where arrivals from soon-to-be-banned countries claimed to have come into the UK without being checked for Covid.