UK prime minister Boris Johnson has said the placing of France on the UK’s travel red list must be considered and several media have suggested it is imminent.
However Mr Johnson said the consequences of such a decision would be significant.
Analysis of the politics and statistics also shows it is unlikely, especially in the short-term, notably because of the severe disruption to deliveries of food and medicines to the UK and the fact that cases of the worst new strains have stabilised in France.
In yesterday’s discussions in the MPs’ Liaison Committee, on which reports of red-listing are based, the call for placing France on the list came from Labour’s Yvette Cooper. The prime minister did not show enthusiasm but did not rule it out.
Being placed on the list would mean only UK residents could travel to the UK from France, with very few exceptions. Even UK residents would have to undertake a 10-day period of quarantine in a government-approved hotel.
Significantly, however both food and medicine transporters would be subject to Covid testing and quarantine rules if France was on the red list, meaning cross-Channel deliveries would probably halt.
Mr Johnson said yesterday these workers, who are exempt from the Covid tests required from most arrivals, usually come in and leave again with a very quick turnaround.
What was said in yesterday’s MPs’ meeting?
Speaking in the MPs’ Liaison Committee, Labour’s Yvette Cooper said that the biggest danger to the UK’s vaccine programme and ability to come out of lockdown is the arrival of new variants, especially the South African and Brazilian ones. She singled out France, asking: “Why have you not introduced additional measures or put France on the red list?”
Ms Cooper criticised the fact that no Covid tests are being required of hauliers who are coming and going from the continent, saying: “You have 20,000 people arriving from France each week of which two-thirds [mostly hauliers] are exempt from testing and quarantine.
“Everyone understands hauliers can’t be quarantined and do their vital job but why are you not testing them? There are 2-3,000 new cases of the South African and Brazilian variants a day in France and in some parts of France they are over 30% of cases and it has been rising overall.”
In fact the UK’s red list rules state that hauliers who have been in red list countries have to observe a 10-day hotel quarantine.
Mr Johnson said the UK had promptly put places on the red list if they were seen as the origin of new strains, such as Brazil and South Africa.
He said: “At the moment in the UK those variants of concern and the effectiveness of the vaccines against them is still a matter of debate, but they are not rising, their numbers are low. We are containing those as best we can with search testing and door-to-door tracing, which I think is the right thing to do.
“In terms of putting France on the red list and the consequences that would have for UK supplies and cross-Channel movements – remember that 75% of our medicines and 50% of our food comes through the Short Straits [ie. across the Channel] so there are consequences, but it’s something that we will have to look at.
"We will have to look at tougher measures because of this ambiguity about the effectiveness of the vaccines.”
He added that numbers of people coming from France had “massively diminished” and “those coming in overwhelmingly and those whose business is deemed essential for the security and supply of our country.
“I’m afraid we can’t rule out tougher measures and we will put them in place if necessary, and yes if it is necessary to bring in testing [for hauliers] we will do that but we must balance between the disruption and the risks.
“Very serious disruption is entailed by curtailing cross-Channel trade. We depend very largely for the food in our shops and the medicines we need on that trade flowing smoothly.
“We will take a decision, no matter how tough, to interrupt those flows if we think it is necessary for public health and to stop new variants coming in and it may be that we have to do that very soon.”
He said however “by Yvette’s logic”, due to uncertainty about new strains coming in they should put the whole world on the red list, but he did not think the economy or public would accept that.
From the discussion, therefore, the “tougher measures”, if taken, could just involve hauliers having to take a Covid test.
When would we know if France is placed on the red list?
On previous occasions this year new additions have been announced with immediate effect on Fridays.
However judging by Mr Johnson’s remarks, France being added tomorrow looks unlikely.
Are there more cases of the new variants in France than the UK?
Yes, according to official UK figures, numbers of detected cases of the South African and Brazilian variants are very low: A total of 366 and 56 respectively.
In the last weekly update by Santé Publique France it was stated that 5% of recent cases in France were linked to one or other of these variants, a figure which was said to have stabilised, contrary to Ms Cooper’s statement that they “have been rising overall”. Far more cases were linked to the ‘UK’ variant.
One department of France, Moselle, has more than 30% of cases linked to the South African and Brazilian strains. Nine in total out of 95 departments in Metropolitan France have more than 10%.
In recent days new cases in France have been around 30,000/day on average, so if 5% are the South African or Brazilian variants that would be 1,500 cases/day.