Rishi Sunak has been accused of “dithering” over whether all travellers arriving from China should face mandatory Covid testing, as more Conservative MPs ramped up pressure on the government to reintroduce the checks.
After a series of seemingly mixed messages about whether the UK could follow the lead of Spain, Italy, the US and India in screening arrivals, a growing number of senior Tory backbenchers suggested the prime minister should be taking the option more seriously.
Downing Street sources sought to downplay the prospect of an imminent change in position, with no meeting of the government’s crisis response committee, known as Cobra, scheduled on Friday.
However, Tobias Ellwood, the chair of the Commons defence select committee, suggested Cobra should already have been convened.
He raised concerns about the reliability of data compiled by the authorities in China, which has experienced a sharp rise in reports of Covid cases and deaths after a significant weakening of rules and abandonment of the “zero-Covid” strategy.
“We should be taking our own precautionary measures … we do not know what variants of Covid have developed in China in the three years of their lockdown,” he told LBC radio.
“Any dithering leaves us as a hostage to fortune … The later you leave any action, the less impact it will have. Let’s get testing in place for passengers regardless of nationality of all incoming flights from China.”
Ellwood asked: “Why hasn’t Cobra met to come to the same conclusion? If there’s any doubt whatsoever then we need to take action and take it immediately.”
David Davis, a former cabinet minister, said it would be “pretty sensible” to require all arrivals from China to be Covid tested, and claimed it would be a relatively small price to pay.
“China, with a very large population of infected people, is likely to be the most probable source of the next variant, and if you get a virulent variant you want to be ready to cope with it as soon as possible,” he told LBC.
“If somebody turns up with the next virulent variant from China, we want to have processes in place – I think the government should certainly consider it and I would ideally implement it.”
The two MPs are known for their hawkish stance on China, though their interventions follow calls by others, including the former health ministers Steve Brine and James Bethell, for testing of arrivals from the country.
But the usefulness of such a policy was disparaged by Andrew Pollard, the chairman of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation.
“Trying to ban a virus by adjusting what we do with travel has already been shown not to work very well. We have seen that with the bans on travel from various countries during the pandemic,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
“The important thing is that we have surveillance that when a virus is spreading within our population here in the UK or Europe we are able to pick that up, and predict what might happen with the health systems and particularly the more vulnerable in the population.”