Ministers fear new strain of Covid from Nepal could scupper holidays

‘Nepal variant’ threat to our holidays: On D-Day for travel as Government is set to update its ‘green list’ of ‘safe’ countries for tourists, ministers fear new strain of Covid could scupper getaway plans

  • Holidays on the Continent may be severely restricted until August as a result  
  • The new development is a huge blow for the travel industry which is on its knees  
  • Industry leaders and MPs have warned that more than a million jobs are at risk  

Foreign holidays are under threat because ministers are worried about a new Covid variant, the Mail can reveal.

Scientists have alerted ministers to the mutant strain – thought to have originated in Nepal – which has apparently spread to Europe. They fear the strain is resistant to vaccines.

But a member of the Government’s SAGE committee of experts said officials should not be overly concerned. He added: ‘There are thousands of variants. This is a virus that is changing all the time.’

And Tory peer Baroness Ruby McGregor-Smith, chairman of the Airport Operators’ Association, said: ‘How many more variants have we got to be worried about? What matters is data and the success of our vaccination programme.’

The Government will today update its ‘green list’ of countries holidaymakers can visit without having to go into quarantine. Whitehall sources said additions to the list will be ‘extremely limited’ amid concern over the Nepal strain and the slower rollout of vaccines across Europe.

There are even fears Portugal could lose its green status today, as the Nepal variant may have been detected there. It means holidays to the Continent may be severely restricted until August – the month now being targeted by ministers for a significant reboot of foreign travel.

Health workers carry Ramjee Kunwar, 65, a Covid-19 patient from a helicopter to an ambulance after being airlifted from Pokhara to Kathmandu due to health complications

The development is a huge blow for the travel industry, which has been brought to its knees by the pandemic.

Industry leaders and MPs have warned that more than a million jobs are at risk if most of the summer season is lost, with billions more wiped from the UK economy.

The row came as:

  • Hopes of the Balearic Islands going on today’s green list were buoyed after it was claimed Britain’s ambassador to Spain suggested there was a ‘good chance’;
  • But in a major blow, Spanish officials said they thought mainland Spain would remain amber – possibly until July 20;  Malta could potentially be the only European destination to go green today;
  • Boris Johnson said ministers would have ‘no hesitation’ putting more countries on the amber and red lists as he vowed to be ‘cautious’ about foreign travel;
  • Holidaymakers face a summer of airport queues, with immigration sources predicting ‘extremely long waiting times’ to get back into Britain;
  • It emerged the end of lockdown could be delayed by two weeks or watered down under contingency plans if there is a rise in Covid hospital admissions.
  • More than three quarters of adults have had at least one jab and almost half have had two;
  • Official figures showed Covid deaths now account for just 1 per cent of all fatalities.

Last night, even government advisers said the UK could not keep panicking every time a new variant emerges. Professor Sir John Bell said ministers should avoid ‘scampering down a rabbit hole’ when new strains are detected, and instead focus on hospitalisations, serious disease and deaths.

Hospitals in Nepal are on the brink of collapse after cases of Covid surged over the past month. Cases had fallen to fewer than 100 a day in March but reached more than 9,000 a day in mid-May.

Scientists have alerted ministers to the mutant strain – thought to have originated in Nepal – which has apparently spread to Europe. Pictured: Passengers arriving at Heathrow Airport 

Nepal’s second wave has been driven by the spread of the B.1.167 variant from neighbouring India. But last night scientists warned that another variant of Covid-19 has since been identified.

Concern among ministers about the strain is one of the main reasons for not putting more holiday destinations on today’s updated green list. They are also concerned about the slower pace of the vaccine rollout across Europe. Even though cases are falling in many European countries, they are far behind Britain’s vaccine drive.

A lack of genome sequencing for detecting new variants in some European countries, a key criteria for making the green list, is also a concern. After meeting the UK’s ambassador to Spain yesterday, Spanish hospitality official Antonio Mayor said: ‘The impression I was left with was that there was a good chance the Balearic Islands could be included on the next green list, but not necessarily the Canary Islands.

‘What was made clear at the meeting is that mainland Spain is not going to be put on the next green list that’s announced.

‘We hope it will be before but we’re looking now at July 20 as the sort of date when things might change. If that does happen the tour operators are going to need at least a fortnight to normalise operations which takes us into the start of August.’

Mr Johnson raised the prospect of more countries being moved from green to amber or red. He said: ‘We’ve got to continue to put countries on the red list, on the amber list, when that is necessary and I want you to know we will have no hesitation in moving countries from the green list to the amber list, to the red list, if we have to do so.

‘The priority is to continue the vaccine rollout to protect the people of this country.’

Last night, MPs and industry expressed alarm at the prospect of foreign summer holidays slipping away. Tory MP Henry Smith, chairman of the all-party Future of Aviation group of MPs, and whose constituency includes Gatwick, said: ‘After a devastating year for our aviation, travel and tourism industries, this will come as a hammer blow to an industry that is close to breaking point.

‘Far from benefiting from a vaccine dividend, this reinforces that our overly cautious approach to international travel is a restart in name only.

‘We must ensure that we avoid a summer shutdown that will cause irreversible damage to businesses and communities who rely on international travel.’

After today, the green list – which currently contains 12 countries – will not be reviewed until the week running up to June 28. If there is not a significant expansion then, it will be July 19 or 20 before there is another chance for more destinations to make it on to the list. 

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