Scientists tell MPs that travel restrictions are “futile”

The Pandemic Response and Recovery All-Party Parliamentary Group have heard from two leading scientists that the reintroduction of travel restrictions will not stop new variants. The meeting is in response to the Department of Health and Social Care’s announcement that from 5 January, passengers on direct flights from China will have to show a PCR negativity certificate for SARS-CoV-2.

David Livermore, recently retired Professor of Medical Microbiology at University of East Anglia, was unequivocal in what he told the Group: “There is no good reason to reintroduce travel restrictions. Quite simply, demanding pre-departure tests is a regression to lockdown rules, many of which were introduced for political reasons and were not based upon sound scientific or public health principles. “Travel restrictions failed to keep out earlier variants; the same variants are prevalent here as in China; imported cases will add little to the UK burden and the UK population has substantial prior immunity. “So, the big infection spike in China is not a reason for action here. Pre-departure tests for travellers from China are yet another futile political gesture." Professor Livermore spoke in favour of implementing voluntary on-arrival testing to act as a “nightwatchman” to detect new variants but stressed it would not stop the spread of them.

Carl Heneghan, Professor of Evidence-Based Medicine & Director of Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine, University of Oxford said: “The re-introduction of tests for those travelling from China is nothing more than the ‘do something’ variety of policy making that has characterised the Government’s response throughout the pandemic. It is far from “balanced and precautionary” as the Health Secretary seems to think, which would be to carefully manage those whose immunity is depressed, one of the most likely sources of viral replication. Tests are helpful only if they can identify contagious cases.

“What it says to me is the government is not using good evidence to inform policy. And government advisors are still not providing evidence-based advice and analysis. Another example is the recent warning from the Chief Medical Officer that excess cardiovascular mortality was due to a lack of statins and antihypertensives, which doesn’t appear to be accurate, according to prescription levels on OpenPrescribing. Yet government policy is decided on this kind of statement. It is time for the government to respond to the most basic Covid questions.” The Group’s Chair, Rt Hon Esther McVey MP, said in response to the briefing: “What we need now is more fulsome evidence gathering and analysis, from which policy decisions can be made. We desperately need a unit at government level to get beyond the headlines - such as the higher than expected excess deaths - and establish what’s causing this. Only then can we understand how to intervene impactfully, rather than jumping to knee-jerk policy responses, the latest example of which is requiring passengers on flights from China to have a negative PCR certificate. It is a worrying slide back into the kind of restrictions we had hoped were confined to history.

“Travel restrictions failed to keep out previous variants and it is wrong to expect a different result now. The measures are doomed to fail, not least because it would be possible to be negative when tested but infectious on arrival.”

Listening to the evidence Co-Chair Graham Stringer MP said: “This is a disappointing decision, taken despite there being no robust evidence to support it. Both the Chair of the Defence Select Committee and the Transport Secretary cited the lack of trustworthy or reliable data from China. The Government was happy to rely on data from China to guide its policy on lockdowns in 2020, in so doing abandoning globally agreed traditional public health policy based on rigorously tested evidence.

“As Professor Livermore said, it is entirely without logic. If the Government has new evidence that such restrictions have any effect on viral circulation, they must share it. Demanding these pre-departure tests for travellers from China is a regression to pandemic rules, for no good scientific purpose.”

Biographies of the experts:

Professor David Livermore (recently retired) was Professor of Medical Microbiology, University of East Anglia. He began his career in 1980 as Research Assistant at the then London Hospital Medical College, doing research for a PhD ‘On the side’. By 1994 he’d risen to Senior Lecturer in Medical Microbiology. In 1997 he moved to the Public Health Laboratory Service, subsequently renamed Public Health England, swiftly becoming Director of its Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring and Reference Laboratory. He remained until 2011, when he transferred to the University of East Anglia as Professor of Medical Microbiology.

Across 40 years he has belonged to – then led – teams that have defined the evolving epidemiology and molecular nature of antimicrobial resistance. He has authored over 500 papers and regularly appears on Clarivate’s ‘Most Cited’ list, has edited for multiple journals and has served on UK government advisory committees on antimicrobial resistance and healthcare-infection. Post-retirement, he retains an honorary position at UEA and consults widely for the medical industry on antibiotic development and rapid diagnostics. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic he has been a consistent critic of lockdown policies.

Professor Carl Heneghan is Professor of Evidence-Based Medicine at the University of Oxford, Director of the Centre for Evidence Based Medicine and an NHS General Practitioner working in urgent care. Throughout the covid pandemic he has provided advice and he regularly appears and writes for the media. With Tom Jefferson he writes about healthcare issues at Trust the Evidence.

View the full minutes for this meeting, held on Monday 16 January 2023.

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