Senior British officials are pushing Number 10 to relax restrictions on travel to the US, arguing the blanket enforcement of quarantine measures risks harming UK business.
Trade officials and diplomats are calling for the government to drop its demand that anyone who travels to the US must enter quarantine for 14 days, arguing that coronavirus is under control in some states, especially around New York.
They say a relaxation would help stimulate transatlantic commerce and could even help smooth the path of a potential trade deal currently being negotiated between the two countries.
So far, however, Downing Street has refused to back such calls, exacerbating tensions between those in government who believe strict controls are needed to keep the virus under control and those who want further relaxations to help boost the economy.
In a further sign of UK nervousness about a renewed autumn spike in the disease, Belgium was on Thursday added to the list of countries from which travellers arriving in Britain must quarantine for 14 days.
There has been an increase in Covid-19 cases there in the last month — driven by a surge in the city of Antwerp. Britain is also adding Andorra and the Bahamas to its quarantine list; Malaysia and Brunei are being removed.
However the disruption of trade and travel between Britain and the US — particularly on the lucrative London-New York run — remains a source of contention inside the British government.
“It doesn’t make sense to force everyone who goes to the US to quarantine for two weeks afterwards — we could easily take a regional approach, and carve out the tri-state area [of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut] for example,” said one person briefed on the discussions.
Another said: “Senior ministers have been debating this for a while, but so far the argument has been that since we are unable to track people’s movements when they get to the US, a blanket quarantine requirement should remain in place.”
Covid-19 cases have surged in recent weeks in the US, but mostly in states that removed lockdown restrictions early, especially in the south and west of the country.
On Wednesday Florida became the second US state to surpass 500,000 confirmed cases, after announcing more than 5,000 new cases in a day. New York, however, which was the early epicentre of the US outbreak, has had a relatively low caseload since mid-June.
The state announced on Wednesday it would establish roadside checkpoints to make sure people who have travelled to high-risk parts of the US are complying with local quarantine requirements.
The UK updates its list of countries exempt from the 14-day quarantine restriction every week but so far ministers have been reluctant to consider countries on a region-by-region basis.
One British official said there had been “lots of discussions” about taking a regional approach — for example excluding some US states with low Covid-19 infection rates — but it had been deemed impractical.
The only exception being considered is whether some island groups — such as the Portuguese island of Madeira or the Spanish Canary Islands or Balearics — might be exempt, but ministers are cautious about even following that route.
“There’s a problem that if you do a regional breakdown for one country, others could demand the same treatment and you’d open the floodgates,” said one government official.
“It’s certainly not being considered for the other side of the Atlantic. It wouldn’t work in America — what would you do, put a physical border around some states?”
Last week travellers to the UK from Luxembourg were told they would have to self-isolate for 14 days after a spike of coronavirus cases in that country.