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U.K. reverses easing France travel restrictions as health chief catches COVID-19

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Tourists and the travel industry vented frustration and anger on Saturday after Britain reversed a plan to ease travel restrictions on France just two days after they were due to start, citing concerns about a variant of the coronavirus.

The move comes despite the fact that France currently has lower rates of the virus than the U.K., where the highly contagious delta variant is driving a surge in infections. On Saturday, Health Secretary Sajid Javid, who is in charge of Britain’s coronavirus response, said he has tested positive for COVID-19 and is self-isolating while he awaits the results of a second test.

Javid said in a video message that he has had both shots of a vaccine and “so far my symptoms are very mild.”

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Javid took over last month from Matt Hancock, who resigned after breaching social distancing rules. Hancock fell ill with COVID-19 early in the pandemic last year, and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson spent several days in intensive care with the virus in April 2020.

Britain currently has higher rates of COVID-19 than France, with more than 51,000 new infections confirmed on Friday, the biggest number for six months. Hospitalizations and deaths are also rising, but remain far lower than at previous infection peaks.

Despite the soaring cases, remaining restrictions are set to be lifted in England on Monday, though the government is advising people to remain cautious and continue social distancing. Face masks will still be required on London’s buses and subways and some other transit networks.

In an announcement late Friday, the U.K. government said people arriving from France must self-isolate for 10 days on entering Britain, even if they are fully vaccinated. The announcement came just days after the government said fully vaccinated U.K. residents will no longer face quarantine starting Monday when arriving from dozens of countries classed as “amber,” or medium, on Britain’s traffic-light system of coronavirus risk. The amber list includes the United States, Canada and much of Europe.

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British health authorities say France is being singled out because of cases of the beta variant, first identified in South Africa, which is believed to be more resistant to vaccines than other strains of the virus. The beta variant accounts for about 10 per cent of cases in France, but much less than 1 per cent of cases in Britain. In both countries, the delta variant first identified in India is dominant.

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Epidemiologist John Edmunds, a member of the U.K. government’s scientific advisory group, said there is good evidence that beta “can evade the immune response generated by the AstraZeneca vaccine more efficiently.”

The AstraZeneca shot has been used for a majority of British vaccinations.

Before the pandemic, more than 17 million U.K. residents visited France every year. Gemma Antrobus from the Association of Independent Tour Operators said Friday’s announcement had taken the travel industry by surprise.

“Nobody expected this to come,” she told the BBC. “So really the travel industry are in as much shock as the consumers are right now and really we would just have to pick up the pieces and deal with it and help our clients through this pretty terrible situation.”

Georgina Thomas, a British nurse visiting her parents in western France, said she was “frustrated with the inconsistent approach the government are taking. It doesn’t all appear logical.”

“If a quarantine is necessary then so be it, but I’m confident that my risk will be higher when I return to the U.K.,” she said.

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The government says easing restrictions is possible because almost 90 per cent of British adults have received one dose of a vaccine, and more than two-thirds have had both doses. Health authorities say the vaccines used in Britain — made by AstraZeneca, Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna — all offer strong protection against serious illness and death after two doses, though they don’t prevent all infections.

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Conservative lawmaker Jeremy Hunt, a former British health minister, said the number of hospitalizations was growing and the warning light for pressure on the health service “is flashing red.”

“I think coming into September we are almost certainly going to see infections reach a new daily peak going above the 68,000 daily level, which was the previous daily record in January,” he told the BBC. “If they are still going up as the schools are coming back, I think we are going to have to reconsider some very difficult decisions.”

© 2021 The Canadian Press

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