Britain will ban arrivals from South American countries and Portugal because of concerns over a new Brazilian variant of the coronavirus.
The Brazilian variant shares some characteristics with those found in Britain and South Africa, which are believed by scientists to be more transmissible but not to cause more severe disease.
"As with the variant that we saw in Kent (southern England)or the one in South Africa, it's significantly enough of interest to us just to take this precautionary approach of stopping all those flights from Brazil (and) South America," Shapps told Sky News.
"Our scientists aren't saying that the vaccine won't work against it... (but) we do not want to be tripping up at this last moment (of vaccine rollout) which is why I took the decision as an extra precaution to ban those flights."
Shapps later said scientists believed vaccines would work on the Brazilian variant, going further than the government's chief scientific adviser Patrick Vallance.
Vallance on Wednesday said there wasn't evidence vaccines wouldn't work but said the Brazilian variant was more of a risk and "we don't know" if it would affect the immune response. A leading British virologist said the Brazilian variant had been traced in Britain.
"There are two different types of Brazilian variants and one of them has been detected (in the UK) and one of them has not," Wendy Barclay, virologist at Imperial College London, told journalists, adding it was "early days" in the understanding of the variants.
Along with UK and South African variants, the Brazilian variant is "of concern" and would be "traced very carefully," she said.
Critics from Portugal
Portuguese Foreign Minister Augusto Santos Silva called the measure an "absurd". Santos Silva told the state-owned news agency Lusa late on Thursday he had requested a meeting with British foreign minister Dominic Raab to clarify the situation.
Britain's transport minister announced on Thursday that Portugal had been added to a list of South American countries from which arrivals were being banned because of its close travel links to Brazil.
"This is an absurd measure, and we don't understand what it is based on," Santos Silva said. There is no evidence that the Brazilian strain is present in Portugal, according to health authorities.
Flights between Portugal and Brazil remain available as part of a wider Portuguese policy of maintaining travel to countries with large Portuguese diasporas. The policy allows only essential travel and does not include tourism.
Travellers must present a negative coronavirus test taken up to 72 hours before departure. Santos Silva criticised the short notice given by Britain for the new measure, which went into force at 0400 GMT on Friday.
He said Portugal had not banned travel from Britain when a new strain of the coronavirus was first identified in the United Kingdom, but had followed European Union policy by simply requiring a negative coronavirus test from travellers. "I believe in the value of reciprocity," he said.
© Reuters, aero.uk | Image: Heathrow Airport | 15/01/2021 09:19