Rishi Sunak has thrown his weight behind plans to force everyone entering Britain to quarantine in a hotel to prevent new coronavirus strains jeopardising the mass vaccination programme.
Amid growing support for the proposal among members of the cabinet, the chancellor is understood to have concluded that the economic cost of the move is outweighed by the risks of the present travel restrictions.
A decision on tightening border rules is due to be made by Boris Johnson tomorrow at a meeting of the government’s Covid operations committee. Two senior government sources said that the prime minister was becoming “more swayed” by the need to take decisive action.
Under proposals being drawn up by the Home Office, all arrivals into UK airports and ports would be escorted to designated Covid-19 hotels where they would be expected to remain for ten days. They would be expected to have another negative test before being allowed to leave.
Talks are being held with hotel chains about taking over premises and officials are confident that they can find enough capacity to accommodate all arrivals, which number 10,000 a day at present. The plans are similar to those introduced by Australia and New Zealand at an early stage of the pandemic.
It was claimed last night that arrivals face being taken to hotels around the country owing to a shortage of rooms. Hotels near Heathrow have 10,000 rooms, the Daily Telegraph reported.
Some in the cabinet, such as Grant Shapps, the transport secretary, have argued that the new restrictions should only apply to passengers arriving from countries with known new strains of Covid-19. Treasury sources said, however, that Mr Sunak was backing ministers, including Mr Hancock and Priti Patel, the home secretary, who wanted the measures to apply to all arrivals.
“The view at both the official and ministerial level is that there is no point doing it in half measures,” a source said. “You might as well do the blanket ban.” Another source said that Mr Johnson held a private meeting with Ms Patel on Friday at which she made the case for a blanket ban, to which he was “increasingly sympathetic”.
All Britain’s remaining quarantine-free travel corridors were suspended last week in response to concerns about new coronavirus variants, meaning that arrivals have to produce a negative test taken within the previous 72 hours and enter isolation for up to ten days.
Mr Hancock made the case for a blanket ban yesterday, warning that it was impossible to predict where new and potentially vaccine-resistant strains of the virus might come from. “It is because of the new variants that we’re more worried about international travel,” he told Times Radio. “The critical thing is to make sure we protect ourselves from a new variant that might not respond as effectively to the vaccine.” Blanket restrictions are strongly opposed by the travel and aviation industries, who fear that they would kill off the summer holiday season.
Thirty-two further mass vaccination centres will open today in England, offering injections to health and social care staff before starting to welcome other priority patients tomorrow. These will bring the total to 49.