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No 10 denies Sage advisers called for closure of borders ‘weeks ago’

Chris Whitty and Boris Johnson at a Downing Street press conference - Credit: PA Wire/PA Images

Downing Street has denied that government scientific advisers called for the closure of UK borders to prevent the spread of new coronavirus variants ‘weeks ago’.

The discovery of the South Africa strain of coronavirus has prompted a series of travel bans, with people arriving into England from anywhere outside the UK, Ireland, the Channel Islands or the Isle of Man needing to isolate at home for 10 days and providing a negative Covid-19 test result before they travel.

A system of quarantine is due to be introduced in the coming weeks that will require those arriving from countries under travel bans to isolate in hotels.

The Times reported that the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) warned last month that “geographically targeted travel bans” would not be enough to stop new strains entering the country.

The prime minister’s official spokesman said: “Sage did not actually advise the government to completely close borders or call for a blanket quarantine on travels.

“They don’t put forward recommendations. Their modelling showed a combination of specific policy options, including pre-departure testing and isolation, are effective in mitigating the public health risk.”

It comes as Professor Mark Walport, former chief scientific adviser to the government, said it was “almost impossible” to completely shut down the country and prevent highly transmissible new strains.

Asked about border closures he told Times Radio: “There is the scientific perfect answer, and then there’s the answer that policymakers will come to, which is sort of practical and achievable.

“The simple answer is, if you want to stop new variants coming to the country then you have to do everything you can to reduce travellers and isolate them as they come across the border.

“The challenge for a country like the UK, which is a major global hub where for our resilience we depend on supplies from all over the world, is whether it’s practical to actually achieve that.

“I think, realistically, most people would feel that, whilst one can delay the coming in of new variants of viruses from around the world, it’s almost impossible to completely close down a country and prevent that happening if there is a very highly transmissible variant.”

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