Travellers from South America and Portugal will be banned from arriving in the UK from Friday morning as a precautionary measure aimed at preventing the new Brazilian Covid variant from reaching the country, the government has announced.
The transport secretary, Grant Shapps, said arrivals from more than a dozen countries including Argentina, Venezuela, Bolivia and Peru would be halted. He said Portugal had been included because of its close travel links with Brazil.
UK residents will be exempt from the new rules – but they and their families will have to self-isolate for 10 days on arrival.
The decision was made at a meeting of the ministerial Covid-O committee on Thursday morning, on the basis of evidence from experts on the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag) on new viruses.
Government sources said devolved administrations supported Shapps’s decision, with Wales and Scotland expected to take similar action.
Boris Johnson had hinted at fresh restrictions on Wednesday when he was grilled by MPs about the issue. The Labour MP Yvette Cooper asked the prime minister: “You were warned about the Brazil variant three days ago. We don’t know, yet, whether that variant could undermine the vaccination programme. Why aren’t you taking immediate action, on a precautionary basis?”
Johnson told her: “We’re putting in extra measures to ensure that people coming from Brazil are checked: and indeed stopping people coming from Brazil.”
It is unclear as yet whether the Brazilian strain may be vaccine-resistant.
Direct flights between Brazil and the UK had already been banned last month, as the Brazilian government tried to prevent the highly transmissible Kent variant of the virus arriving on its shores.
The government has been criticised throughout the pandemic for failing to act rapidly enough to control the UK’s borders.
A new testing regime, which will oblige arrivals from overseas to have a negative Covid test, has been delayed at the last minute from Friday morning to Monday, after a backlash from travel companies and tourists who complained the government had failed to provide enough guidance to operate the scheme effectively.
The prime minister’s spokesman defended the last-minute delay on Thursday, calling it a “grace period”.
“We always said we would introduce the regulations on Friday, and the laws still come into force on Friday but we’ve implemented a grace period over the weekend, so that passengers can have a little bit more time to get access to the tests they need that meet our requirements,” he said.