Will Spain and Greece be next on No10's 'amber-plus' travel list?

Will Spain and Greece be next on No10’s ‘amber-plus’ travel list? Up to a FIFTH of all Covid cases in the holiday hotspots are down to the vaccine-resistant Beta variant

  • Decision to move France to amber-plus list ‘bizarre’ and ‘came out of nowhere’
  • Data showed South Africa variant caused just 4% of cases in most recent week
  • Countries ‘with similar or higher’ infections may be next for the list, experts warn

Scientists have been left puzzled over No10’s ‘bizarre’ decision to put France on the amber-plus travel list, pointing to data showing travellers to Spain and Greece may pose more of a risk. 

The Government lifted the 10-day home quarantine rules for fully vaccinated Britons returning from countries on the amber list today.

But the self-isolation rules won’t apply to France, which was slapped in a stricter tier amid fears over the ‘persistent presence’ of the Beta variant.

Experts were baffled over why France was singled out, given that Spain and Greece appear to be currently hit harder by the mutant strain. 

Data collated by European health chiefs show the South African variant, as it is also known, was behind just four per cent of all cases in France last week.

For comparison, its prevalence was five times higher in neighbouring Spain, where it made up slightly more than a fifth of all new infections. The variant was also more common in Greece (13.4 per cent).

Professor Paul Hunter, an infectious diseases expert at the University of East Anglia, said the data suggests France ‘does not have a problem with Beta’.

He told MailOnline the move was ‘bizarre’ because Spain and Greece ‘seem to have rather more cases than France’. 

Other academics said they ‘would not be surprised’ if the two nations were stuck on the tougher amber-plus list. Travel experts have also predicted Spain and Greece will be next on the chopping block for summer holidays.

Thousands of Brits are currently in Spain and Greece — with both currently on the amber list. Current Covid travel restrictions mean fully vaccinated people don’t need to quarantine when they get back to England from today.

Just 4.2 per cent of all cases in France were caused by the Beta variant in the week ending July 4. Alpha (18.6 per cent), Delta (69 per cent) and Gamma (5.8 per cent) were all found to be more common. During this period, France sequenced 1,466 of the 16,182 cases it recorded

In the week ending July 4, Spain recorded nearly five times as many cases of the Beta variant (21 per cent). But the Alpha (35.3 per cent) and Delta (36.1 per cent) strains were still more dominant. During this week, Spain sequenced just 124 of the 73,833 positive tests it recorded

Greece recorded more than three times more Beta variant cases than France in the week ending July 4 (13.4). The Delta (41.4 per cent) variant is the most dominant in the country, followed by Alpha (25.6 per cent). On this week, Greece sequenced 567 of the 5,059 positive tests it recorded

What are the rules for people returning to England from abroad? 

AMBER LIST  

  • Take a Covid-19 test in the three days before you arrive in Britain 
  • Book and pay for day two and day eight Covid-19 tests – to be taken after arrival in England
  • Quarantine at home or in the place you are staying for 10 days, and complete a passenger locator form 
  • From July 19, if you are vaccinated, you won’t need to quarantine in England – but you will need to take a test before arriving back in the country, and then another on day two after your return

For arrivals returning from an amber list country, before arriving in England, you must take a private PCR or lateral flow test in the three days before the service on which you will arrive in England departs.

For example, if you travel to England on Friday, you can take the test on or after Tuesday and will need to have the negative result available before boarding on Friday.

Before you arrive in England, you must also book and pay for day two and day eight Covid-19 tests, to be taken after your arrival in England.

But under the Test to Release scheme you can choose to pay for a private Covid-19 test on day five. If the result is negative (and the result of your day two test result was negative or inconclusive), you can end your quarantine.

From 4am on July 19, you will not need to quarantine on arrival in England or take a day eight Covid-19 test, as long as you are fully vaccinated. This means that you have had your final dose of an approved vaccine at least 14 days before the date you arrive in England.

If you are not fully vaccinated under the UK vaccination programme, you will have to quarantine on arrival and take both the day 2 and day 8 tests. If you arrive in England before 4am on July 19, you must follow the current rules, even if you have been fully vaccinated.

RED LIST

  • You can only enter England if you are a British or Irish National, or you have residence rights in the UK
  • Take a Covid-19 test in the three days before you arrive in Britain 
  • Book a quarantine hotel package, including two Covid-19 tests, and fill out a passenger locator form

If you have been in a country or territory on the red list in the last ten days you will only be allowed to enter the UK if you are a British or Irish National, or you have residence rights in the UK. 

You must also take a Covid-19 test in the three days before you arrive and book into a quarantine hotel.

The rate for one adult in one room for ten days (11 nights) is £1,750, while the additional rate for one adult (or child over 11) is £650, and for a child aged 5 to 11 it is £325.

While in the quarantine hotel you must also take two Covid-19 tests. 

GREEN LIST

  • Take a Covid-19 test in the three days before you arrive in Britain
  • Book and pay for a day two Covid-19 test, which will be taken after your arrival in England
  • Complete a passenger locator form

Before arriving in England, you must take a private PCR or lateral flow test in the three days before the service on which you will arrive in England departs. 

You cannot take an NHS test abroad with you to use on yourself before you return. If you are returning to the UK within three days, you can use the result of a Covid-19 test that you take in the UK before you travel – but this must be from a private test provider and not the NHS. 

He said: ‘There was jump in sequenced Beta cases in the week ending June 27, but this was likely an artefact due to very few tests being sequenced.

‘So maybe someone looked at data from just that week.’

Alex Taylor, a British journalist who lives in France, suggested No10 looked at infection data from Réunion, a French territory in the Indian Ocean, around 5,700 miles from Paris, where the Beta strain is dominant.

Announcing the decision on Friday night, the Department of Health and Social Care said the move followed the ‘persistent presence’ of Beta cases in France.   

Professor Hunter said: ‘There may be other reasons unclear to me for the move but I am surprised.

‘Spain and Greece seem to have rather more of the Beta variant than France, so that’s bizarre. 

‘I personally cannot see a real or valid public health reason for doing it. Even if the Beta reduces protection given by the vaccine, the jab still prevents severe cases and deaths.

‘I can’t see any value of having France or any other country on the amber-plus list solely on the prevalence of variants. In terms of controlling infectious variants, the horse is gone.

‘I think the Government has taken a reasonable approach up to now.

‘But if you go to France or Spain, you are more likely to be positive than the guy who checks your passport.’ 

Dr Simon Clarke, a cellular microbiologist at the University of Reading, said the decision ‘came out of nowhere’ and ‘no one was expecting it.’ 

He said: ‘It is most reliable to look at infection rates and I have heard suggestions that other countries will be added. 

‘Anywhere with infection rates similar or higher, I would not be surprised if they were added.’

Professor James Naismith, a senior researcher in structural biology at the University of Oxford, said: ‘The Beta variant is of concern since it has more potential to infect vaccinated individuals. 

‘The Beta variant is already in the UK but it has been out competed by the Delta variant. It surprises me with Delta cases so high in UK other countries allow UK tourists to visit.  

‘Travel bans can at best buy time, that is all. 

‘As Israel showed and the UK is showing, even high vaccination levels do not completely stop delta spread. 

‘Vaccination does dramatically reduce death and illness. Delta in an low vaccinated countries will result in a catastrophe. 

‘As the UK has unlocked, Delta and presumably Beta, have the opportunity spread more quickly.’ 

Despite the questions around why the Government added France to the amber-plus list, experts said they may have seen different data that is not accessible to the public.

Data from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control shows France sequenced 0.09 per cent of all positive cases in the most recent week. 

Of the cases sequenced, just 4.2 per cent were linked with the Beta variant. Alpha (18.6 per cent), Delta (69 per cent) and Gamma (5.8 per cent) were all found to be more common.

For comparison, Britain sequences 10.5 per cent of all cases and spotted Alpha (1.2 per cent) and Delta (98.8 per cent) in the seven days up to July 7, but recorded no new Beta cases.

Meanwhile, Spain and Greece have sequenced just 0.17 per cent of cases and 0.11 per cent of cases in the last seven day period.

Experts now fear Spain, Greece, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands could join the amber-plus list.

Paul Charles, chief executive of travel consultancy The PC Agency told i there will likely be further changes to the amber-plus list as countries see higher infection rates.

Tim White, a data analyst, warned that Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands could be at risk, in addition to Spain and Greece. 

What is the Beta variant?

The Beta variant – known scientifically as B.1.351 – was first identified in South Africa on December 18.

It was picked up through random genetic sampling of swabs submitted by people testing positive for the virus, and was first found in Nelson Mandela Bay, around Port Elizabeth.

The Beta strain has now been found in 68 countries. After being identified in South Africa, the UK, Switzerland, Finland and Zambia were the next countries to record cases of the variant.  

Is it more infectious? Does it kill more people than original strains? 

The South Africa strain is known to spread more quickly than the original strain — but is not believed to be more deadly.

There are two key mutations on the variant that appear to give it an advantage over older versions of the virus – these are called N501Y and E484K.

Both are located on the spike protein of the virus, which is a part of its outer shell that it uses to stick to cells inside the body.

N501Y is thought to help the virus spread faster, while E484K may give it the ability to slip past immune cells that have been made in response to a previous infection or a vaccine.  

So far British scientists have sequenced 1,012 cases of Beta, compared to 267,922 cases of the Kent mutation and 42,323 of the Indian strain. It does not appear to be any more transmissible than the Delta variant.

The lack of cases identified means death rates among people who catch the South African variant may be less accurate.

Do vaccines still work against it? 

Lab studies by US researchers found the antibodies made in response to the Pfizer vaccine are less effective against the Beta strain. 

A small study by Pfizer found its jab to be 100 per cent effective in preventing 800 people living in South Africa from developing symptoms of the mutated virus. 

But experts poked holes in its methodology, saying the rates were compared to just six cases in a placebo group — meaning it was too small to draw any firm conclusions.

SAGE advisers say there is ‘good evidence’ from South Africa that it can evade the immune response generated by the AstraZeneca’s vaccine.

Researchers evaluating the jabs performance claimed it may just have a 10 per cent efficacy in stopping people falling ill with Beta.

But studies found it still offers protection against severe illness and death.

Meanwhile, the Moderna jab was found to produce antibodies that are slightly less effective against the South African variant in lab studies. But the effectiveness of this jab against the mutation still needs to be tested on people. 

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