Travel ban ‘would have minimal effect on delaying spread of coronavirus’

Banning travel would have had a “minimal” effect on delaying the spread of coronavirus and it is too late to do so now, the Government’s chief scientific officer has said.

Sir Patrick Vallance was speaking hours after Donald Trump announced a 30-day ban on all travel to the US from continental Europe.

Standing alongside Boris Johnson as he gave the latest update on the UK’s fight against the virus, Sir Patrick said stopping flights from China had been considered early on in the plan but that it was concluded the effect would not have made a big difference.

He said: “Quite early on we looked at the question of stopping flights and the assessment was, if we stop flights directly from China at the beginning, unless you have got something like a 95% effect, in other words you could stop all the routes from China to the UK by 95%, the effect on the delay to the epidemic was minimal. It was a day or two.

“More realistically we could get at best a 50% reduction so that this really was not going to make a big difference.”

He said the evidence had borne that out and added that it is now “too late” to be implementing such a measure.

He said: “You cannot, in the way the world works, you cannot stop that, unless everybody decides to do it all at once and it’s certainly too late now to be trying to do that.”

Sir Patrick also questioned the usefulness of airport screening measures.

He said: “The other thing is of course the screening measures at airports sounded sensible but we know for example the first case in the US went through the screening measure and that the first person was not detected and then popped up. So these things sound great but don’t always work.”

Earlier Chancellor Rishi Sunak said there is no current evidence to suggest imposing travel bans would have any effect on the spread of the disease.

He told the BBC the Government would take the “right steps at the right time”, but said there is not yet the evidence to support a move to close borders in the UK or put travel restrictions in place.

Mr Trump’s decision to restrict travel has been criticised by scientists, security analysts and the European Union.

In a joint statement on the travel ban, EU presidents Charles Michel and Ursula von der Leyen said they “disapproved” of the decision.

They said: “The coronavirus is a global crisis, not limited to any continent, and it requires co-operation rather than unilateral action.

“The European Union disapproves of the fact that the US decision to impose a travel ban was taken unilaterally and without consultation. The European Union is taking strong action to limit the spread of the virus.”

Mr Trump said the restrictions would not apply to the UK, and a list of 26 affected countries published on the US Homeland Security website also confirmed Ireland is not among nations subject to the ban.

Professor Paul Hunter, professor in medicine at the University of East Anglia, said: “At best travel bans only delay the spread of an epidemic by a short while.

“Introducing an international travel ban at a time when the US is now one of the countries with the most rapidly accelerating internal transmission rates will do little if anything to reduce the burden of infection within the US.”

Mr Trump’s former Homeland Security adviser, Thomas Bossert, described the US ban as a “poor use of time and energy.”

Writing on Twitter, he added: “There’s little value to European travel restrictions. Earlier, yes. Now, travel restrictions/screening are less useful. We have nearly as much disease here in the US as the countries in Europe. We MUST focus on layered community mitigation measures-Now!”

Editor of Which? Travel Rory Boland said it is “vital” travel operators provide clear information to travellers about the effects of any restrictions.

He said: “The US travel ban means travellers from the UK on connecting flights via Amsterdam, Paris and other popular European hubs will also be denied entry.

“It’s vital that airlines provide clear information and support to passengers due to travel and those already in the US – and that they offer options such as refunds, re-routing or rebooking if flights are cancelled.”