LONDON — The U.K. government is preparing to remove France from an onerous set of travel rules amid claims that British ministers “massively overreacted” to the prevalence of the Beta variant in the country at the start of the month.
France was abruptly placed into “amber plus” restrictions in mid-July — a separate category to the existing traffic light scheme of red, amber, green — requiring arrivals to quarantine for 10 days regardless of vaccination status. Double-vaccinated Brits returning from amber-rated countries are not required to self-isolate.
A Whitehall official said that Prime Minister Boris Johnson had received a briefing from the transport department on infection rates in France shortly before one of his regular meetings with Health Secretary Sajid Javid on travel rules.
The briefing mentioned that the Beta variant is known to be less responsive to the AstraZeneca vaccine, which has been used more widely in the U.K. than in France, and reportedly provoked Johnson to declare “that’s it.”
At the meeting in question with Javid on July 16, the prime minister decided to put France into the newly-created amber plus category.
The same Whitehall official claimed the government had acted hastily after its experience with the Delta variant that was originally identified in India. Ministers were blamed for not restricting travel from that country early enough — leading to the rapid spread of the variant in the U.K. “We’ve got our minds focused on the booster program in the autumn and it’s about not letting anything slip before then,” the official said.
A U.K. diplomat went further, saying ministers had been “burned” over the Delta outbreak and “massively overreacted.”
Clément Beaune, France’s Europe minister, said yesterday: “It is a decision that discriminates against the French because other Europeans, even countries that are in more difficult health situations because of the Delta variant or another variant, are not affected by this quarantine.”
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps told LBC on Friday: “Rightly the government has been on the cautious side of careful … The big concern is that we don’t allow a variant in which somehow is able to escape the vaccine program that we have got.”
He added that France was “flagged because of cases [of Beta] actually in France” and not Réunion (an island in the Indian Ocean that is a French overseas department), as previously cited by U.K. Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab.
A Downing Street spokesman told journalists that the traffic light list would be updated next week in line with the usual three-weekly review.
There is a widespread expectation in the government and the transport sector that the quarantine requirement for France will be dropped. A transport industry adviser commented: “They’re taking France off at the earliest opportunity without it being a U-turn.”
When tougher rules were imposed by the U.K., the Beta variant was present in about 11 percent of positive PCR tests in France between July 6 and 12, according to data published by Public Health France.
However, British public health officials were concerned about the relative resistance of the Beta variant to the AstraZeneca vaccine. John Edmunds, a professor at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and government adviser, told the BBC’s “Today” program: “It is probably less infectious than the Delta variant … where it has an advantage is that it is able to escape the immune response to a better extent.”
Clea Caulcutt contributed reporting.
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