Britain’s newly established quarantine hotels received their first guests on Monday as the government tries to prevent new variants of the coronavirus from derailing its fast-moving vaccination drive.
Passengers arriving at London’s Heathrow Airport on Monday morning were escorted by security guards to buses that took them to nearby hotels.
Britain has given a first dose of coronavirus vaccine to almost a quarter of the population, but health officials are concerned that vaccines may not work as well on some new strains of the virus, including one first identified in South Africa.
Under the new rules, people arriving in England from 33 high-risk countries must stay in designated hotels for 10 days at their own expense, with meals delivered to their door. In Scotland the rule applies to arrivals from any country. International travel has already been sharply curbed by the pandemic, and Britons are currently barred from going on overseas vacations.
Critics say the quarantine hotels are being set up too late, with the South African variant already circulating in the U.K.
On Sunday, the government reached its goal of giving the first of two doses of vaccine to 15 million of Britain’s most vulnerable people, including health care workers and those aged over 70.
Visiting a London vaccination center on Monday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson praised the “unbelievable effort” by scientists, medics, pharmacists, members of the military and volunteers that had achieved Europe’s fastest vaccine rollout.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock said the vaccination drive is now being extended to people over 65 and those with underlying health conditions. The government aims to give everyone over 50 a first shot of vaccine by the end of April, and the whole adult population by September.
Britain has had Europe’s worst coronavirus outbreak, with more than 117,000 deaths. Infections and deaths are now falling steadily, and the government says that on Feb. 22 it will announce a “road map” for easing a nationwide lockdown.
Johnson is under pressure from some members of his governing Conservative Party to lift the lockdown soon, allowing businesses to reopen and people to visit friends and family.
The prime minister, who has been accused of being too slow to lock Britain down last spring, then too quick to ease restrictions in the summer, now strikes a more measured tone.
“We’ve got to be very prudent,” he said, adding that the steps announced next week would be “cautious but irreversible.”
Epidemiologist Neil Ferguson, who advises the government on respiratory viruses, said officials were right to be cautious.
“The thing we don’t want to repeat is what has happened on previous occasions — namely relaxing too fast,” he told “Good Morning Britain.”