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Boris Johnson's Travel Policy Has Been a Mess

Boris Johnson's Travel Policy Has Been a Mess

Saturday, 16 January, 2021 - 08:15

It bears asking: How is it that an island nation ended up in the seventh circle of Covid hell?

The UK left the European Union in part because it hated the idea of allowing people free movement, and yet during the public health emergency its borders have been a sieve. That was excusable in the early fog of this war. People returning from winter ski holidays last February couldn’t know they were carrying a deadly disease. But once the scale of the problem became apparent, controlling the virus’s arrival from abroad surely had to be high on the list of possible mitigation measures.

With this in mind, the UK’s decision on Thursday to ban flights from South America and Portugal hints at an awakening of a government whose entire pandemic response, if you had to tap it out as a rhythm, would go something like “slow, slow, pause, PANIC,” as each new piece of information became available.

The travel bans came in response to a new variant first identified on Jan. 2 when four people arriving from Brazil tested positive for the virus at Tokyo’s Haneda Airport and were immediately isolated. Had those travelers arrived in Britain instead, there is no chance it would have been caught so quickly.

It’s not clear that this variant is any more dangerous than the ones first found in southeast England or South Africa. And yet, why take risks? Chief Scientific Officer Patrick Vallance has said it “might make a change to the way the immune system recognizes it, but we don’t know.” It apparently shares a mutation with the one identified in South Africa that makes antibodies less effective, though that doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be impacted by the new Covid vaccines.

It is certainly highly transmissible and one urgent question is whether this strain can infect those who already had the virus and should have some level of immunity. That possibility arises after a surge of cases in the Amazon city of Manaus last month, which has now declared a state of emergency. What was surprising is that research published last year suggested 76% of the city’s population had caught the virus by October. If any place should have reached herd immunity, it was there.

Given the UK’s own dire rise in cases, everything about the Japanese discovery rang alarm bells. Jeremy Hunt, a former health secretary and foreign secretary, put the question directly to Prime Minister Boris Johnson during a parliamentary committee appearance Wednesday: Given what we know about the new mutation, doesn’t an immediate travel ban make sense? Johnson dodged the question, but a day later, the UK announced the new policy.

There is no question it was the right one, though Brazil had already banned UK flights for fear of Britain’s virus variant. Hospitals are near maximum capacity, and Johnson warned on Thursday there’s a “very substantial” risk of intensive care wards being overrun. As I wrote earlier this week, that’s partly the result of decades of budget cuts that have left Britain with too few beds and trained nurses. The UK can’t afford the risk of letting this new variant enter freely as it pleases.

After Covid-19 reached a certain level of prevalence, the government view was that impeding travel wouldn’t make much of a difference. Perhaps it worried that closing borders would tarnish the emergent Global Britain brand. If so, that vanity was costly. There has also been constant pressure from the anti-lockdown wing of Johnson’s ruling Conservative party to avoid policies with economic consequences. Just on Thursday, Johnson was warned his leadership would be on the table if he didn’t make clear the path out of lockdowns.

As case numbers declined after the first lockdown, the UK put “travel corridors” in place with certain countries, leading to a 400% increase in international passenger numbers in June and July from what it was before they were established. As summer turned to fall, Covid’s second wave was fully underway.

The travel policy has been lax but also confusing, with changing rules on quarantine requirements. There were exemptions, for example, for “high value” business travelers. Fines for breaking quarantine rules are rarely handed out. Contact tracing, a system Johnson promised would be “world beating,” has been weak. Meanwhile, France, Italy, Germany and other countries had much more stringent restrictions in place or more robust enforcement.

The UK had already planned to require incoming passengers to present a negative Covid test taken within 72 hours of departure starting on Jan. 18, catching up with other countries. The measure was put in place after much campaigning from the travel industry in response to the variant identified in South Africa. The new ban tightens restrictions further. Better now than never.


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