The government was embroiled in a rancorous diplomatic standoff 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 baffled by the move, suspecting UK ministers may have based it on rising cases on the French island of Reunion – nearly 6,000 miles from Paris.
On Friday, the government announced the end of quarantine for vaccinated British residents returning from countries on the “amber” list, but said this would not apply to France because of the Beta variant, first identified in South Africa.
The variant accounts for about one in 10 new infections in France, but the data includes its Indian Ocean territories of Réunion and Mayotte, where the variant is almost dominant.
Prominent French-based British journalist Alex Taylor was among those to ridicule the move, saying it appeared Boris Johnson “doesn’t understand La Réunion and Mayotte in the Indian Ocean are part of France.”
Earlier the Department of Health and Social Care said its decision was made “following the persistent presence of cases in France of the Beta variant.” As the Observer went to press the department had yet to respond to requests for an explanation on its decision-making. The Beta variant is reported responsible for a small number of France’s average 5,000 daily cases, according to a French government app.
Gisaid, a website that tracks Covid variants, says the Beta variant represents 3.4% of cases in France with the majority on Réunion. The French consul-general in London said the “scientific justifications don’t always spring immediately to mind”.
The move has caused “massed confusion” said Gemma Antrobus, of the Association of Independent Tour Operators. “This new level of traffic light, this fifth traffic light that we now have – amber-plus – wasn’t something that’s ever been mentioned,” she told the BBC. "Il travel industry are in as much shock as consumers.” Antrobus estimated “hundreds of thousands” may be affected. The travel industry body Abta said the move was a further setback for hopes of a “meaningful recovery” for the sector. The chief executive of easyJet, Johan Lundgren, said it “pulls the rug” from under those already in France or those who had booked holidays there.
There was however some scientific backing for the move. Prof 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”. While less infectious than Delta, he told the BBC, “it is able to escape the immune response to a better extent. Of the variants that are out there and known about, that one has always been a threat. There is some good evidence from South Africa 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, e 5,795 in France. France recorded a new high in inoculations with 879,597 in a day. Almost 55% of the French population has received at least one vaccine dose and just under 44% are fully vaccinated.
The outgoing British ambassador to France, Lord Llewellyn, said the decision would be disappointing to many, but people could reduce their 10-day quarantine with a negative “early release” PCR test.
This early release test, tuttavia, does not remove the need for day two and day eight PCR tests from government-approved laboratories, costing hundreds of pounds.