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Measures introduced to improve Covid surveillance from China

Passengers arriving from China to England from 5 January will need to show a negative Covid-19 pre-departure test (PDT) taken no more than two days prior to departure.

  • England joins a growing list of countries across the world to announce temporary measures as Covid cases rise in China ahead of their borders re-opening next week
  • From 5 January, people flying from mainland China to England will be asked to take a pre-departure test. In addition, a sample of arrivals will be tested for Covid to enhance existing measures to monitor for new variants
  • Best defence against the virus remains the vaccine – over 152 million jabs have been given across the UK since December 2021 – with jabs available in walk-in sites and appointments bookable online

The government has announced a series of precautionary and temporary measures to further improve the UK’s ability to detect potential new variants of Covid from China, following an increase in cases there and the easing of their border measures next week.

Although there are no direct flights from China to Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland, we are working with devolved nations to ensure this is implemented UK-wide as soon as possible.

The decision has been taken to introduce these measures specifically for China arrivals due to a lack of comprehensive health information shared by China. The situation remains under review and the UK is working with China on next steps. If there are improvements in information sharing and greater transparency then temporary measures will be reviewed.

The volume of passengers from China remains low – however, as a precautionary measure, following the re-opening of Chinese borders in January, the government has announced that:

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  • People travelling from mainland China on direct flights to England from Thursday 5 January will be asked to take a pre-departure Covid test. The government is working with international partners at pace to determine scope and will announce further details in due course.
  • In addition, the UK Health Security Agency is launching surveillance from Sunday 8 January which will see a sample of passengers arriving in England from mainland China tested for Covid at the point of their arrival.

Airlines will be required to check all passengers from China have negative pre-departure tests, and passengers will not be allowed to board a flight without providing evidence of a negative test result.

Passengers at Heathrow will be invited to take part in the study and all positive samples will be sent for sequencing. This will further enhance the UK’s ability to identify any new variants which may be circulating in China that could evade the immune response of those already vaccinated or which have the potential to successfully outcompete other variants and spread internationally.

England joins a growing list of countries across the world including US, Italy, Japan, Republic of Korea, Spain, Malaysia and India in announcing measures which will help to detect and assess any new Covid variants.

The available genomes from China and from other countries where testing has occurred suggest that the variants circulating in China are the same as seen in the UK and elsewhere in Europe. The UK has a number of surveillance systems in place to detect the prevalence and spread of new variants and the UK’s sequencing data is shared rapidly to help support global awareness and health security.

Whilst there is currently no data to suggest there are previously unknown or potentially harmful variants circulating, the new surveillance measures will help detect them if they do arise.

The best form of defence against the virus remains the vaccine. Eligible people who are most at risk of serious outcomes from the virus can book their jab via the NHS app, or the National Booking Service, or they can just turn up at of the thousands of walk-in centres across the country.

 Secretary of State for Health and Social Care Steve Barclay said:

“As Covid cases in China rise ahead of them reopening their borders next week, it is right for us to take a balanced and precautionary approach by announcing these temporary measures while we assess the data.

“This allows our world leading scientists at the UK Health Security Agency to gain rapid insight into potential new variants circulating in China.

“The best defence against the virus, however, remains the vaccine. NHS staff have done an incredible job delivering over 150 million jabs across the UK.

“It isn’t too late to come forward, for your first, second, third, or autumn booster – it’s quick and easy and you can book online, on the NHS app, or just turn up at one of the many walk-in centres across the UK.”

The government recognises the impact that temporary health measures have on the travel and aviation industry. These testing requirements for travellers arriving from mainland China will be kept under regular review.

Prof Susan Hopkins, Chief Medical Advisor at UKHSA said:

 “The UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) continues to closely monitor the prevalence and spread of new SARS-CoV-2 variants and keep available international data under review.  The evidence suggests the recent rise in cases in China is due to low natural immunity and lower vaccine uptake including boosters rather than the emergence of new Covid-19 variants – unlike in the UK where vaccines are maintaining high population protection. But in order to improve our intelligence, we are enhancing our surveillance, in addition to our current routine testing protocol.

“COVID-19 cases continue to rise at home too and it remains important to try to stay at home if you are unwell, wash your hands regularly, try to keep rooms well ventilated and remember the best protection is to get your booster jab if eligible.”

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