Is UK risking new COVID variants without action on Chinese travellers? – Sky News

There are fears that the end of almost three years of strict measures in the nation of 1.4 billion people could result in a massive spread of the disease worldwide.
Thursday 29 December 2022 21:08, UK
To test or not to COVID test people arriving from China? That’s the question UK government officials are mulling as the east Asian country opens up to international travel.
There are fears that the end of almost three years of strict COVID measures in the nation of 1.4 billion people could result in a massive spread of the disease worldwide.
So what is the best approach? Here is a guide to the current situation.
What is the UK’s response?
At the moment, the UK government is adopting a wait-and-see approach. It is keeping the situation “under review” after previously stating there are no plans to introduce mandatory COVID-19 testing for arrivals from China.
Other nations have gone further by requiring a negative COVID test result no more than two days before departure from mainland China, Hong Kong or Macau (like the US will do) or testing people when they arrive (which happens in countries such as Italy).
So what did Italy find when it tested passengers from China?
The main airport in the Italian city of Milan started testing passengers arriving from Beijing and Shanghai on 26 December and discovered that almost half of them were infected.
Are we risking missing new variants by not testing people from COVID hotspots?
The UK, which was led by PM Boris Johnson when the pandemic took hold in 2020, has been criticised for its handling of the public health crisis, having been slow to spot the infections arriving and late with a lockdown compared to other major countries.
The big worry for scientists and officials is new variants entering the UK which could be more virulent and more contagious than the ones already circulating.
Professor Rowland Kao, an expert in epidemiology and data science at Edinburgh university, told Sky News: “At the moment there is no obvious indication there are any new variants emerging from China.
“But the problem we have is we have so little data from China that we really don’t know what’s going on.”
He added: “Every time we get a different variant coming into the country from whatever source or even arising within the country, as has happened in the past, we get surges of the number of cases.
“Those surges in cases ultimately result in surges in the number of people in hospital. And we need to be aware of these things, do as much we can to prepare for them. Although honestly, there isn’t that much under the current circumstances we can do.”
Health minister Will Quince added: “The key thing to look out for is a new variant, and there is no evidence of a new variant that is not already prevalent in the UK – but we are keeping the situation under review.”
How can we track new variants entering the UK?
Prof Kao thinks that international arrivals should have lateral flow tests done.
He said: “If you have a positive test, have a PCR test done so we can get the information we need to understand what’s happening. That isn’t going to prevent the spread of the infection.
“We’ll get far too few that way, but it will give us the data to understand what’s going on. Understand what’s coming into the country, and whether or not we should be concerned about new variants arising or arriving from elsewhere.”
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Former health minister Lord Bethell has urged the government to follow Italy in introducing COVID tests for visitors from China.
The Tory peer, who was in post during the pandemic, said this strategy would allow results to be trusted and for genomic testing to be carried out to understand whether any new variants are emerging.
“I think there are two different reasons to bring in testing – one is the American approach which is pre-testing to slow the spread. That is a difficult thing to do because containing a virus like COVID is like trying to stop the sea.
“But what the Italians are doing is post-flight surveillance of arrivals in Italy in order to understand whether there are any emerging variants and… the impact of the virus on the Italian health system,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
“That is a sensible thing to do and something the British government should be seriously looking at.”
How serious is the spread of COVID in China at the moment?
UK-based health data firm Airfinity has estimated around 9,000 people are probably dying each day from COVID-19 in China – nearly twice last week’s figure, with daily infections expected to peak at 3.7 million cases in mid-January.
China officially reported one new COVID death for this Wednesday, down from three on Tuesday, but foreign governments and many epidemiologists believe the numbers are much higher, and that more than one million people may die next year.
China said it only counts deaths of COVID patients caused by pneumonia and respiratory failure as COVID-related.
Its official death toll of 5,246 since the pandemic began compares with more than one million deaths in the US. Chinese-ruled Hong Kong has reported more than 11,000 deaths.
China has rejected criticism of its statistics as groundless and politically motivated attempts to smear its policies. It has also played down the risk of new variants, saying it expects mutations to be more virulent but less severe.
China’s borders have been all but shut to foreigners since early 2020, soon after the coronavirus first emerged in its central city of Wuhan, but it has announced it will do away with quarantine for inbound travellers from 8 January.
The re-opening raises the prospect of Chinese tourists returning to shopping streets around the world, once a market worth $255bn (£211bn) a year globally.
What is the current COVID situation in the UK?
COVID infections increased in England and Scotland earlier this month, while the trend in Wales and Northern Ireland was uncertain.
A total of 1.4 million people in private households in the UK were likely to test positive for coronavirus in the week to 9 December.
This was up from 1.1 million in late November but below the two million weekly infections in early October.
The estimates published by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) give a snapshot of what was happening in the UK at the start of December, when coronavirus was starting to become more prevalent among the population.
Prof Kao said: “We’re certainly better off than were a year ago, two years ago.”
He said the numbers of people getting vaccinated now are lower than they were in previous waves but they are still “relatively high”.
“The number of people in hospitals is going up, people with COVID. You add on to the number in hospitals with flu, with other infections like RSV (respiratory syncytial virus), and what this results in is a really, really high number of people, a real stress on the capacity of the NHS.”
Meanwhile, the UK Health Security Agency will stop publishing COVID modelling data next month after almost three years.
The increasingly sporadic updates on the virus’s R number will cease from 6 January 2023, with it deemed “no longer necessary” thanks to vaccines and treatments. Homepage © 2022 Sky UK


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