U.K. to Decide on Flight Quarantine as Deaths Near 100,000

Boris Johnson is expected to announce the government’s plan for quarantining travelers arriving in the U.K. to stop the spread of new coronavirus strains from overseas.

The prime minister will chair a meeting of senior ministers on Tuesday to weigh up options for requiring new arrivals to isolate in hotels.

“There will be an announcement on this issue later on today,” U.K. Vaccine Minister Nadhim Zahawi said on Sky News on Tuesday, warning that it is too early for people to think about booking summer holidays. “As we vaccinate more people, it becomes more and more important that we protect against any new variants coming in.”

The U.K.’s death toll is on course to pass 100,000 this week and, with hospitals close to capacity and infections still high, Johnson is some distance from meeting the conditions he set for loosening national restrictions when he imposed them on Jan. 4. He is under pressure from members his own Conservative Party to set out a road map for leaving the country’s third national lockdown, amid fears it will wreck businesses and tip the economy into a double dip recession.

‘Reinfection’

Ministers see mass vaccination as the U.K.’s ticket out of lockdown, and the National Health Service has so far given shots to 6.6 million people, including 79% of those over 80 years old.

Increased border controls, including quarantining arriving travelers in hotels as countries such as Australia and Singapore have done, could help to keep out any strains that might undermine the effectiveness of the doses being administered.

“We want to make sure that we protect our population, protect this country against reinfection from abroad,” Johnson said in a pooled TV interview Monday. “That idea of looking at hotels is certainly one thing that we’re actively now working on.”

The U.K. has also offered to share its expertise in testing and analyzing new strains of the virus to help keep a cap on outbreaks around the world, Health Secretary Matt Hancock will say in a speech Tuesday. British genomics expertise will be available either through testing of samples or training and advice for other countries, his office said in a statement.

Border Caution

“It is incredibly important that we are cautious at the border,” Hancock said in a televised briefing Monday evening, when asked about the quarantine plan. “It is also reasonable to take a precautionary principle to protect this country whilst we work on the science and the analysis of the different variants that are discovered around the world.”

The prime minister warned that lifting lockdown rules too quickly would risk a new surge of infections, amid growing pressure from rank-and-file Tories to lay out a time frame for reopening the economy.

Restrictions are due to be reviewed in mid-February, by which time Johnson hopes to have hit his target to vaccinate almost 15 million people considered most vulnerable to the disease, but there are growing indications the timetable for lifting the lockdown is slipping, potentially even into summer.

That has alarmed prominent Tories including Mark Harper and Steve Baker, who have called on ministers to set out a road map for easing the curbs, especially reopening schools, and the criteria they will use for doing so.

“Once the vulnerable are protected, the first priority should be to start reopening schools,” Harper said on Twitter on Monday. “The Government needs to show us a plan.”

Johnson reiterated that his government’s priority is to reopen schools as fast as possible, though he said any lifting of the lockdown must be done in a “responsible, cautious” way. “There’s nothing I want to do more than reopen schools,” he said. “We want to do that in a way that is consistent with fighting the epidemic and keeping the infection rate down.”

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