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Holidays will bring risk of virus variants, says scientist

Distant dream: the Greek island of Lesbos
(Simon Calder)
Travel Correspondent

An epidemiologist has warned that foreign holidays in July and August present “a real risk” of bringing Covid variants back into the UK.

Dr Mike Tildesley, associate professor of infectious disease modelling at Warwick University, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “We are running a real risk if we do start to have lots of people going overseas in July, for instance, in August, because of the potential for bringing more of these new variants back into the country.”

He said he is particularly concerned about variants with the E484K mutation: “That’s the one that’s in the South African strain that we’re worried about, that we feel make the vaccines less effective.

“That is a bit more prevalent in Europe, so I think that’s a real concern: that if we do start seeing more of those cases coming in, then they start to evade the vaccine and that could cause more problems for us. I was saying a few weeks ago that I was fairly confident that a domestic holiday season in the UK was very possible given the rate of our vaccination campaign.

“But I was much more sceptical about what was going to happen internationally. My position on that hasn’t changed very much. International travel in this summer, for the average holidaymaker – sadly I think it’s extremely unlikely.”

Dr Tildesley is a member of the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Modelling group (SPI-M) of the government’s scientific advisory group for emergencies (Sage). He said risks exist even in cases where the travel companies insist passengers are vaccinated – as some cruise lines have done – or are tested at airports.

“If we take new vaccine-evading variants out of the equation then there is a potential if people are testing or if they’re vaccinated then theoretically they should be pretty safe because of the levels of protection.

“The problem more is the potential for bringing new variants into the country. What I think is really dangerous is if we jeopardise our vaccination campaign by having these variants where the vaccines don’t work as effectively spreading more rapidly.

“In the long term it’s highly likely that we will have variants emerging in the UK where the vaccines don’t work as effectively, and we may need to think about future booster vaccination campaigns. But the longer we can push that down the road, the better.”

But the health secretary Matt Hancock said last night that Britain was at present still sticking to the roadmap and would update the public on plans for international travel on 12 April. “We’ll look at the rates both here and abroad and the impact of new variants to understand whether it's safe to make that move,” he said.

Paul Charles, chief executive of travel consultancy The PC Agency, who has campaigned to open up international travel, said: “Scientists seem to want to keep our borders shut for years, in order to keep out possible variants, which they don’t yet have clear evidence about.

“The prime minister has to put in place effective airport testing on arrival, to enable infections to be kept out of the UK and the economy to motor on. It will be a summer of sun, sand, sea and swab, but consumers are prepared for that.”

At present all holidays abroad are illegal.

The government’s Global Travel Taskforce is due to report on 12 April on proposals for restarting international leisure travel. The earliest possible date for residents in England to go abroad on holiday is 17 May.