The government was embroiled in a spiteful diplomatic showdown with France on Saturday night after its surprise decision to continue imposing a 10-day quarantine on fully vaccinated people returning from the country.
French officials seemed puzzled by the move, suspecting that UK ministers may have based it on the spike in cases on the French island of Reunion, nearly 6,000 miles from Paris.
On Friday, the government announced an end to quarantine for vaccinated British residents returning from countries on the “amber” list, but said this would not apply to France due to the Beta variant, first identified in South Africa.
The variant accounts for about one in 10 new infections in France, but the data include its territories of Reunion and Mayotte in the Indian Ocean, where the variant is nearly dominant.
Noted French-based British journalist Alex Taylor was among those who ridiculed the move, saying it appeared Boris Johnson “does not understand that La Réunion and Mayotte in the Indian Ocean are part of France.”
Previously, the Department of Health and Social Assistance said that its decision was made “after the persistent presence of cases in France of the Beta variant”. As the Observer went to press the department had not yet responded to requests for an explanation of its decision making. The Beta variant is reported to be responsible for a small number of the 5,000 average daily cases in France, according to a French government app.
Gisaid, a website that tracks Covid variants, says that the Beta variant accounts for 3.4% of cases in France and the majority in Reunion. The French consul general in London said that “scientific justifications do not always come to mind immediately.”
The move has caused “massive confusion,” said Gemma Antrobus of the Association of Independent Tour Operators. “This new level of traffic light, this fifth traffic light that we have now, more amber, is not something that has ever been mentioned,” he told the BBC. “The travel industry is just as shocked as the consumers.” Antrobus estimates that “hundreds of thousands” may be affected. Travel industry body Abta said the move was a further setback for hopes of a “significant recovery” for the sector. EasyJet CEO Johan Lundgren said it “pulls the rug” for those already in France or those who had booked vacations there.
However, there was some scientific backing for the measure. Professor John Edmunds of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), said the Beta variant “has remained a threat throughout.” Although it is less infectious than Delta, he told the BBC, “it is able to escape the immune response to a greater extent. Of the variants that exist and are known, that has always been a threat. There is good evidence from South Africa that it can evade the immune response generated by the AstraZeneca vaccine more efficiently. “
Official figures show there were 54,674 coronavirus cases in the UK on Friday and 5,795 in France. France registered a new record of inoculations with 879,597 in one day. Almost 55% of the French population has received at least one dose of the vaccine and just under 44% are fully vaccinated.
The outgoing British ambassador to France, Lord Llewellyn, said the decision would be disappointing for many, but that people could reduce their 10-day quarantine with a negative “early release” PCR test.
However, this early release test does not eliminate the need to run day two and day eight PCR tests in government-approved labs, which cost hundreds of pounds.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism