The UK may need stricter travel rules for France to prevent the large-scale import of a worrying Covid variant, a top expert has warned.
SAGE member Prof Neil Ferguson said a “bespoke agreement” was needed to “mitigate” the risk of the South African variant of coronavirus.
While the B.1.351 strain – which may have more resistance to a vaccine – is already in the UK, officials say it has so far been limited to fairly small numbers.
But countries including France are different – with Prof Ferguson saying the South Africa strain is making up a “significant fraction” of cases, 5% to 10%.
Prof Ferguson said it was right to think of France seeing a “third wave”, and while it is mainly driven by the variant first found in Kent, the South Africa strain is a concern.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme France “are in some sense in the same position we were in last November, December, in terms of growing case numbers.”
He added: “Some countries are notably seeing a significant fraction, 5-10% of cases, of the South African variant.
“When infection levels go up in France, 30,000 cases a day, that implies there’s at least 1,500-2,000 cases a day of the South African variant. That is the variant we really do want to keep out of the UK.”
Asked if France should be put on the ‘red list’ of countries with forced, £1,750-a-head hotel quarantine, he said: “I don’t think that’s necessarily a practical issue given the amount of trade and commerce which goes on.
“I think we need a more bespoke agreement which just tries to mitigate that risk, perhaps to a higher degree than we have now.
“That risk will increase over time. As we relax measures in this country, as we all hope we can do, then there becomes more opportunity for these strains which are at low level in the country right now to grow and cause a problem.”
He added: “I think there are important decisions coming up, and it’s always a balancing act.
“How much we relax the current ban on international travel except for essential services.
“As a lot of essential travel between ourselves and France for business, commerce and trade, how can we reduce the risks associated with that travel.
“Those are policy decisions – I’m just raising the issue that we are doing so well with the vaccination campaign, we are driving down deaths at a faster rate than I ever thought was possible and that will allow us to open up.”