n immediate ban on flights from Brazil and nearby South American countries was set to be imposed today in response to a new mutation of coronavirus.

Up to 10 countries in the region could be affected by the move designed to reduce the risk of importing a new variant that spreads more quickly than the original strain.

Separately, ministers were embroiled in a storm after a surprise late-night decision by the Transport Secretary to postpone making Covid-19 tests compulsory for visitors coming to the UK from all foreign regions. Labour said the extra delay was “putting people at risk”.

Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove was chairing a meeting of the decision-making Covid O committee to discuss the Brazil variant threat and other emergency measures.

Sources told the Standard that no changes to the current lockdown rules in England were on the agenda of the meeting, despite Scotland first minister Nicola Sturgeon going into a tighter lockdown with new bans on drinking outdoors and curbs on click and collect shopping.

The new threat from the South America strain put a new spotlight on the Government’s decision to allow international travel to continue.

At 11pm last night, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps issued a tweet announcing that the introduction of testing for people entering the UK, which was due to start on Friday, was being postponed to 4am Monday.  He tweeted: “To give international arrivals time to prepare passengers will be required to provide proof of a negative COVID-19 test before departure to England from MONDAY 18 JANUARY at 4am.”

Home Office Minister Victoria Atkins denied that ministers were not tough enough on travel, saying there was “a delicate balance” between protecting health and keeping up the economy and jobs.

But Nick Thomas-Symonds MP, the shadow home secretary, claimed there was “chaos” in the Transport department: “Issuing statements in the middle of the night, because their proposals are unworkable, causes ever greater challenges for travellers and industry.

“This chronic failure is also putting us at risk yet again, from strains such as those that emerged in South Africa and Brazil. As ever, Ministers are too slow to act and it’s putting people at serious risk.”

Mr Shapps last week announced passengers arriving in England by boat, train or plane – including UK nationals – will have to test negative for Covid up to 72 hours before leaving the country of departure.

Travellers will need to present proof of a negative test result to their carrier on boarding while the UK Border Force will conduct spot checks on arrivals.

New arrivals who flout the rules will face a minimum £500 fine, while the operator who transported them will also be fined.

Passengers will still have to quarantine for 10 days regardless of their test results.

Travellers will have to take an internationally approved test and guidance released by the Department for Transport said they could include PCR tests, nasal and throat swab tests which take between 12 and 24 hours to return results.

Loop-mediated isothermal amplification (LAMP) tests, which can return results in two to three hours, and lateral flow tests which generate results in less than 30 minutes are also acceptable.

Results can be produced as physical documents or by email or text, but must be in English, French or Spanish. Translations will not be accepted.

British nationals attempting to return home who test positive must not travel and must follow the local guidance in their host country, and contact the nearest consulate if they need support.

Scotland is also set to adopt the same approach to international travellers, while Wales and Northern Ireland are expected to announce their own plans for pre-arrival testing in the coming days.

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