BRITAIN will be plunged back into “another full lockdown” if a vaccine-busting variant arrives from abroad, a Cabinet minister warned today.
Environment secretary George Eustice said draconian restrictions will have to be reimposed to combat a dangerous new strain the gets around the jab.
He made the remarks with ministers today set to ease travel restrictions and ditch the need for gold-standard PCR tests when returning to the UK.
Vaccinated travellers will be able to take a much cheaper lateral flow swab, which picks up Covid but can’t be used to detect variants.
They will also no longer have to show a negative result to enter the country.
Mr Eustice said ministers will meet later today to take a decision on changes to the travel rules.
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But he defended the strict regime up until now insisting it has “given us extra protection against potential variants of concern”.
He added: “It’s been a very, very difficult time for the travel industry, we absolutely recognise that.
“That’s why we’ve done all we can to have those easements in place, reduce the restrictions as quickly as we can.
“Arguably the biggest threat to the travel industry is that we do get another variant the vaccine can’t deal with, then we’re into another full lockdown.
“That’s not what we want. That’s why we’ve taken this cautiously step by step, because we want each step we take to be irreversible.”
Mr Eustice said “no decision” has been made yet on how much to ease travel curbs but No 10 wants to remove “unnecessary” restrictions.
He added: “The rationale for the PCR test is you can do genome sequencing of variants and you can, therefore, detect possible variants of concern.
“The difficulty with the lateral flow test, although it is cheaper and simpler to do, it is not able to pick up those variants.
“So, that’s the rationale and that’s been the rationale so far for making sure we keep some of that PCR testing in place.”
But he added: “I know this has been raised by the travel industry that they think some of that testing may be unnecessary, may be onerous.
“The Government will be listening to that.”
His remarks come after No10 refused to rule out a return to lockdown this winter.
Ministers scientists warned the emergence of a strain that can escape the vaccines would be a “potential trigger” for new restrictions.
Boris Johnson said the Government will do “whatever we can” to stop more mutations entering the country from abroad.
Chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty added: “The worry would be one that can escape from the vaccination”.
The Government’s has announced twin-track plan to avoid another national shutdown this winter.
Plan A involves a vaccine booster plus flu vaccine blitz alongside pumping millions more into the NHS and Test and Trace.
If that fails there is a fallback blueprint for the reintroducing of masks, working from home, and vaccine passport.
But health secretary Sajid Javid couldn’t rule out that even more drastic action will be needed if a dangerous new variant emerges.
He was pressed on the circumstances under which the Government would resort to reimposing a national lockdown.
Mr Javid replied: “In terms of any potential triggers, one thing I would highlight is the importance of being on guard against any future variants.
“Especially if there is ever a variant that is, let’s say a ‘vaccine escape variant’ – no one can rule that out.
“That is why our surveillance system is so important, but in that situation I think the Government would have to take further action.
“We couldn’t say what that action would be today, but that is the kind of risk that we need to be on guard.”