‘Staggering’ drop in sequencing of PCR tests to track Covid variants

Potential Covid variants are entering the UK unchecked as the rate of positive tests being genome sequenced from amber-listed countries has fallen to just three per cent, official figures show.

The analysis shows that just 44 – or three per cent – of the 1,388 positive test results on people arriving from amber countries in the three weeks to June 30 were genome sequenced to identify variants. That compares with 61 per cent in the three weeks to March 17.

There was a similar decline even for travellers returning from red list countries – including South Africa, South America and India where three of the variants first emerged.

The official data, analysed by the House of Commons Library, showed the proportion of positive tests from red list countries that were sequenced dropped from 65 per cent to 13 per cent over the same period.

The disclosure comes as it emerged that travellers to and from the UK have forked out £380 million for expensive PCR tests in the past six months supposedly so that the Government can track variants. The ability to genome sequence samples from PCR tests to check for variants has been used by ministers as the main reason for requiring travellers to pay for them, even if they have been fully vaccinated.

Layla Moran, chair of the All-Party parliamentary Group on Coronavirus, which commissioned the research, said the figures were “staggering” at a time when concerns about the beta variant had led to new tough quarantine restrictions on France.

"The rise of the beta variant in neighbouring countries should be setting alarm bells ringing in Government. Yet instead ministers are dismantling our defences against the virus and opening the floodgates to new variants,” she said.

“It seems that vital lessons have still not been learned from the failure to prevent the delta variant taking root in the UK. The Government must urgently fix this scandal and step up the sequencing of test results, before more dangerous Covid variants slip through the net."

Karen Dee, chief executive of the Airport Operators Association, said: “It’s difficult to comprehend why the Government is now not sequencing results, while still expecting people to pay for the more expensive test.

“If it is no longer important to sequence, then cheaper, rapid tests should replace the expensive PCR tests for travel.”

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The £380 million that travellers have paid for tests was calculated by Bloomberg based on data showing 6.3 million people had entered or left the UK in the past six months, potentially paying on average £60 for each test.

The cost can vary markedly: kits for tests on day two and eight of arrival range from £23.99 to £575 on the Government website.

Two-thirds of positive tests among travellers with a known origin since March have been from one of ten countries: Pakistan, India, Poland, Romania, Spain, France, Turkey, Bulgaria, Portugal, or Nigeria, according to the Commons Library analysis.

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