BORDER controls cannot stop new Covid variants from entering the UK, the Government's chief scientific adviser has warned.
Sir Patrick Vallance said to stop the coronavirus coming in from abroad, “you have to have completely rigorous” measures at the border.
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He told MPs even then “you won’t stop them [cases and new variants] completely”.
The Government brought in tougher border restrictions this year in response to the South African and Brazilian variants arriving on British soil.
It means anyone entering the UK needs to quarantine either at home or in a hotel, depending on where they travel from.
If passengers come from the “red list” of 33 countries, they have to fork out £1,500 to stay in a Government arranged quarantine hotel – or face a 10-year prison sentence.
Asked about the Government’s maintenance of a “red list” of countries, Sir Patrick said there is “some logic” in choosing countries which have got the highest prevalence of the virus.
But he added: “I don’t think we should dream that you can stop these things coming in or, indeed, evolving within domestic virus transmission.”
Speaking at the Science and Technology Committee, Sir Patrick said that coronavirus variants people are concerned about “are likely to arise everywhere”, suggesting it is not possible to predict where they would be imported from.
He told MPs: “Largely they have been detected in countries which have got good sequencing capabilities, so there will definitely be other variants that simply haven’t been detected because they will be in other countries that aren’t sequencing.
“I would expect to see more variants emerge.”
Sir Patrick said above all else, the main focus for the UK should be to get coronavirus cases down as low as possible in order to stop new variants emerging domestically.
The virus has a better capability of evolving and gaining new mutations when there are lots of cases.
Sir Patrick also said border controls worked best when domestic cases were low.
Other measures – such as self-quarantine – aimed at reducing the chance of cases or variants coming in “will delay, rather than stop” cases from coming in.
He used New Zealand as an example of where there have been “no cases or very few cases”, thanks to “a very, very rigorous border system”.
But “clearly at some point they are going to have to open up their border and at that point they will see an influx of infections”, Sir Patrick said.
New Zealand has been praised for its “zero Covid” approach to the pandemic, meaning officials focused on eliminating the virus completely.
The island has been able to return to normality, aside from a few circuit breaker lockdowns in response to infected people slipping through borders.
And the desirable effect has left some scientists questioning why the UK is not aiming for zero Covid.
But Sir Patrick, alongside the Chief Medical Officer Professor Chris Whitty, said it was not considered possible for the UK to ever wipe out the virus.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has also told the public there is no “credible route to a zero-Covid Britain”.
Sir Patrick said: “I do not think that zero Covid is possible. I think there’s nothing to suggest that this virus will go away, at least any time soon.
“It’s going to be there, circulating. It may be a winter virus that comes back over winters with increasing infection rates during that period.”
He suggested even the countries that have achieved zero Covid – which also includes Australia – would find it very difficult to keep cases out in the long-term “because at some point countries have to open up borders”.
Prof Whitty said: “We should be concentrating our efforts on getting it as low as we possibly can. If we could get to zero, fine.
“But very very few scientists who have looked at this actually think getting to zero is a realistic option. All of us think getting to very low rates is a realistic option, and that's what we should be aiming for.”
He added he would “love for Covid to magically disappear” but that was “quite a tall order”.
Even measles has not been completely eliminated, despite global efforts and an “incredibly effective vaccine”.
Prof Whitty said: “People have talked about eliminating measles all the time, and countries come in and out of elimination. But it hasn't been achieved yet – not for any significant time.
“If by elimination you mean zero cases transmission in a clear, reasonably large geographical area, which is how I would define it, we are nowhere near eradication for measles, for example.”
It comes as the chief medical officer said the public should expect more Covid deaths moving forward.
Prof Whitty said "there will be a further surge" in coronavirus cases in the future, and it will "find the people who have not been vaccinated", or for whom the jab does not work.
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