France may “very soon” be added to the red list of countries with the toughest coronavirus travel restrictions, Boris Johnson has indicated.
His warning came days ahead of the expected imposition of Covid-19 tests for lorry drivers arriving in the UK from the country.
It is understood that ministers are set to announce a new requirement for fast-turnaround lateral flow tests by the end of this week – just as Paris lifts a similar restriction on truckers crossing the Channel in the other direction.
Pressure is mounting on Mr Johnson to introduce mandatory hotel quarantine for travellers from France and other European countries, amid fears over the current upsurge in coronavirus cases on the continent.
Chief medical officer for England Chris Whitty and his deputy Jonathan Van-Tam reportedly told the prime minster that tougher border controls are needed to avoid the danger of new variants of the disease being imported.
The red list system bans all travellers from high-risk countries from entering the UK, except for British and Irish nationals and people with residence rights – who must quarantine for 10 days in a hotel – and certain occupations, such as drivers of goods vehicles.
But few of the 35 countries currently on the list have significant travel links with the UK, so adding France would represent a major escalation of the scheme.
Giving evidence to the House of Commons Liaison Committee, Mr Johnson came under intense pressure from Labour’s Yvette Cooper, who said that 20,000 people a week were coming from France to the UK without any requirement for testing or quarantine.
Ms Cooper demanded to know why lorry drivers were not being tested at a time when France is suffering up to 3,000 new cases a day of the South African variant, which is believed to be more resistant to vaccines.
The PM warned that any tougher measures would impose “very serious disruption” on trade flows which account for 75 per cent of the UK’s medicine supplies and 50 per cent of food.
But he added: “I think we now in seriousness need to look at the situation at the Channel. I’m afraid that we can’t rule out tougher measures and we will put them in if necessary.”
Mr Johnson said that he was ready to take a decision “no matter how tough” to tighten controls, “if we think that it is necessary to protect public health and to stop new variants coming in”.
And he warned: “It may be that we have to do that very soon.”
His comments came a day ahead of a crunch vote in the House of Commons on Thursday on extending cororanvirus regulations in the UK until October, expected to be opposed by as many as “a few dozen” rebel Tory MPs.
Labour’s shadow immigration minister Holly Lynch said the government was “recklessly putting at risk progress being made by the vaccine by refusing to take action to secure our borders against Covid”.
Calling for hotel quarantine for arrivals from all countries, she said: “Rather than the prime minister waving a white flag and saying a third wave from Europe will inevitably ‘wash up on our shores’, the UK government should be urgently introducing a comprehensive hotel quarantine system, to help guard against new variants.”
But Mr Johnson resisted the extension of red list provisions to travellers from anywhere in the world.
“I’m not certain that that is something that the UK economy or the UK public will understand and accept,” he told MPs. “Because you’re doing something to prohibit movements or stop movements when you don’t actually know the risk that you are trying to mitigate.”
The Road Haulage Association (RHA) said preparations for testing of lorry drivers coming into the UK had been under way for “many weeks” and could be introduced without any disruption to the flow of goods.
Haulage companies were “awaiting clarification” from the government, said an RHA spokesperson.
Sarah Laouadi, European policy manager at Logistics UK, said: “It is vitally important to protect the UK’s highly interconnected supply chain from the threat of new Covid-19 variants, and rapid testing of drivers on arrival in the UK will provide additional confidence for those whose businesses they supply.
“However, it is worth remembering that drivers are, by the nature of their jobs and thanks to contactless delivery procedures, a very low-risk category – as has been borne out by the testing carried out on drivers since the start of the pandemic. Any testing regime must be proportionate.”
France has seen coronavirus cases soar to as many as 35,000 a day over the past week as the country fights its worst spike in the illness since November.
March has also seen rising infections in EU countries like Germany and Italy, while daily numbers in the UK have dropped below 6,000 for the first time since September as vaccinations forge ahead.
Asked if tighter restrictions can be expected, a Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “We have strong measures in place at the border and the vast majority of people coming into this country must quarantine and take two mandatory PCR tests – on day 2 and day 8 of their 10-day isolation period, as well as proving they have tested negative before travel.
“Specific and limited exemptions are only in place where necessary, for example to allow for food, medicines and other products to be delivered into the UK.
“We are carefully monitoring the increase in cases in Europe and will keep all measures under review as we cautiously remove restrictions.”
The Department for Transport said it had no comment to make on the introduction of tests on incoming truckers or the possible expansion of the red list.
France introduced a 48-hour ban on travel from the UK in December in response to the emergence of the virulent Kent variant of coronavirus, later permitting trucks to cross the Channel only after drivers have tested negative for the disease.