All travellers arriving in the UK will have to take two coronavirus tests in a fresh attempt to prevent mutant strains entering the country under new rules to be announced this week.
The Department for Health and Social Care (DHSC) said the move was designed to provide a “further level of protection” enabling the authorities to track new cases more effectively.
It is expected that people isolating at home will be told they must get a test two and eight days into their 10-day quarantine period.
It comes after it was confirmed last week that UK nationals returning from 33 “red list” countries would be required to quarantine in closely monitored government-designated hotels, where they would have to take two tests.
A DHSC spokesman said: “Throughout the pandemic, the Government has put in place proportionate measures, informed by the advice of scientists, that have led to some of the toughest border regimes in the world.
“Enhancing our testing regime to cover all arrivals while they isolate will provide a further level of protection and enable us to better track any new cases which might be brought into the country, and give us even more opportunities to detect new variants.”
A formal announcement could come as early as Tuesday when Health Secretary Matt Hancock updates MPs in a Commons statement on the pandemic.
The move comes as officials sought to reassure the public that vaccines should provide effective protection against people falling seriously ill from the new South African variant.
South Africa has suspended use of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine after a preliminary trial suggested it offered a reduced level of protection against infection and mild illness from the variant.
However the deputy chief medical officer for England said that, unlike the variant which emerged last year in Kent, there was no evidence it enjoyed a “transmissibility advantage” so was unlikely to become the dominant strain in the UK in the coming months.
Professor Jonathan Van-Tam said he believed it was “likely” the AstraZeneca jab – like the other vaccines – would give “substantial” protection against serious illness from the South Africa variant.
He said that it was possible people would need annual or biennial booster jabs as the vaccines were updated to deal with new variants, and that there were “a lot of steps behind the scenes” to ensure that could happen.
New rules on hotel quarantine are due to come into force on next week – although the Government has yet to announce any agreement with any of hotel chains on providing accommodation.
On Monday the Prime Minister’s official spokesman said no formal contracts had yet been awarded after the Government issued commercial specifications last Thursday.
However the Financial Times reported that ministers were said to be close to signing up a series of hotels near Heathrow, and were optimistic of agreeing deals with others around Manchester, Gatwick, Birmingham and London City airports.
Some 10,000 extra coronavirus tests will be rolled out in Manchester from Tuesday, after four people from two unconnected households were found to be infected with the E484K mutation linked to the Kent variant, Manchester City Council said.
Meanwhile the Government is urging any over 70s in England who have yet to receive an appointment to be vaccinated to contact the NHS to ask for one. Previously people were told to wait until they invited to get the jab.
Ministers remain confident they will hit their target to offer a vaccination to the 15 million people across the UK in the four most vulnerable groups – including the over 70s – by Monday.
Mr Hancock said 12.2 million people have now received the jab, including 91% of all over 80s as well as 93% of eligible care home residents.
The new figures came as the Government launched an urgent campaign to recruit more social care staff in England to fill gaps left by staff forced to self-isolate.
DHSC urged the unemployed, volunteers and people on furlough to register to fill short-term gaps in the sector with opportunities including personal care – helping people to wash and dress – providing wellbeing support, collecting and delivering supplies or helping out with cooking and cleaning.