Easing restrictions for EU and US travellers coming to England is a “smart, sensible” approach, the Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab has insisted, amid concerns about the risk of a new variant emerging.
Mr Raab said he is confident it is the right step and described the new rules on travel as a “modest opening up”.
From 4am on Monday, England is to allow people visiting from the US and the EU who are fully vaccinated against coronavirus to enter without the need to quarantine.
Labour has claimed there is a risk of allowing a new Covid variant to “run rampant” through the country, and it has been reported the Cabinet had been warned the move posed a “clear public health risk”.
Mr Raab admitted the Government “cannot guarantee” that US and EU travellers will not try to show fake vaccination certificates.
He told BBC Radio Four’s Today programme: “We can’t guarantee that some people might not do it. I think it is highly unlikely.”
Mr Raab said there is a “double lock” of written certification and proof of US residency for American travellers, which he said could allow “further checks if there is any suspicion of fraud”.
Describing the new approach as “smart, sensible”, he added: “Both domestically with our rollout but also internationally, we want to open up, we want to move the country forward, but we want to do it irreversibly and we need to take solid, surefooted steps forward.
“We feel this is a modest opening up of international travel, but one which has the reassurances that means that we can take further steps forward as we build confidence in the system.”
Mr Raab also said there had already been foreign ministers from other countries, which he did not name but described as “high-trust partners”, getting in touch with him about possible similar arrangements.
The Times newspaper reported that senior officials warned the Cabinet about the risk from the new arrangements with the US and EU of people entering the country having had vaccines not approved for use in the UK.
Mr Raab said neither the Chinese Sinopharm nor Russia’s Sputnik vaccines are acceptable.
He told Times Radio that the UK’s high double vaccination rate “gives us a level of domestic assurance” for the new arrangements.
Following an encouraging few days in which Covid-19 case numbers in the UK have fallen from above 50,000 on July 17 to 27,734 by 9am on Wednesday, Labour sounded warnings over the impact of the travel changes.
Shadow transport secretary Jim McMahon said: “The Government’s track record on our borders has been one of recklessness and confusion.
“They are in danger of continuing this by setting out changes in policy, applying to England only, without the scientific data and criteria we need to make sure we don’t see another Johnson variant run rampant through the country and damage the effort of the British public.
“We want to see international travel opened up safely.
“Ministers need to be clear on what progress has been made on reaching reciprocal agreements for Brits travelling abroad – particularly regarding the NHS app being accepted as proof of Covid status.
“We also need a clear green and red list and the country-by-country data to back it up.”
The Scottish Government also announced the rule change will apply to fully vaccinated EU and US visitors to Scotland from Monday.
The Welsh Government said it “regrets” the move to remove the quarantine requirement in England, but added it would be “ineffective” to have different rules for Wales.
Ministers in Northern Ireland will consider their position on the change at Thursday’s meeting of the powersharing executive.
Currently, only travellers who have received two doses of a vaccine in the UK are permitted to enter from an amber country – such as the US and most of the EU – without self-isolating for 10 days, except those returning from France.
Professor Christina Pagel, director of the clinical operational research unit at UCL, said she was worried about variants that are better at infecting people who are already vaccinated, given that those who are fully vaccinated could still catch and pass on the virus.
Speaking to the Guardian, she said a “worrying new variant could emerge” in the US or Europe – or “a variant that emerges anywhere will spread everywhere” if travel were less inhibited between those places and the UK.
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps hailed the policy change as “progress we can all enjoy”.
The new arrangements have not been reciprocated by the US, but Mr Raab said the Government is “showing some leadership” in its approach.
He told Good Morning Britain: “We are proceeding confidently, I think we’re showing some leadership here, and of course we want to work through reciprocal arrangements with the US as soon as possible.”