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21 December 2020

The quarantine of the UK is about coronavirus, not Brexit

While the British government has acted irresponsibly towards its own citizens, it has been a good neighbour in quickly communicating the threat of the new strain.

By Stephen Bush

The European Union and a host of countries across the world have closed their borders to the United Kingdom following the emergence of a new strain of coronavirus, which spreads faster than the original strain.

Because in France that ban extends to manned freight (that is, goods brought in by a driver), it could result in shortages of some food in the UK, though in practice it is more likely to result in major financial losses for businesses, delayed Christmas presents and higher prices for some households, rather than food shortages.

It’s tempting to view the quarantine measures in the light of two things: the government’s bad luck due to the emergence of a new Covid-19 variant, and the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union and the accompanying trade talks. Neither angle is really illuminating.

Hear Stephen discuss the Christmas U-turn on the New Statesman podcast:

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To the new, more contagious strain of coronavirus: the reason the Christmas unlocking was a bad idea is that it would have redistributed cases from the UK’s great cities, which are net exporters of people over the festive period, to its towns, rural and semi-rural areas. This is particularly acute in London, where half the population is born outside of the city and much of that half returns to family homes during the Christmas holidays.

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[see also: Boris Johnson overpromised on Christmas – the mistake made throughout the pandemic​​]

Because the UK’s big cities have younger populations than the country as a whole, a “safe” number of live coronavirus cases in cities may cause a great number of fatalities when city-dwellers return to their family homes in Warwickshire, the Rhondda or Angus. In England, tiers are allocated chiefly based around healthcare capacity – so the unlocking risked moving cases from places where the NHS could absorb a greater number of cases to places where it couldn’t.

We knew, too, that for reasons that were unclear, the second nationwide lockdown had done a worse job of reducing London’s caseload than the first. What we didn’t know was whether that was due to London’s distinct characteristics – it is the only international mega-city in the UK, it has higher population density than any other British city, it has a larger and more interconnected public transport network – or, as now appears likely, due to changes in the Covid-19 virus itself. So encouraging a migration from London, in particular, and cities in general over Christmas was always a dangerous move.

The political and scientific questions about the risks of large migrations of people have not changed since the Chinese government cancelled mass celebrations of the Lunar New Year – the biggest annual migration of people in the world, to which Christmas is the nearest British analogue – and put four cities into lockdown at the end of January 2020.

In addition, as long as coronavirus is circulating, the potential for it to evolve in new and dangerous ways remains a live one, as Saloni Dattani and Stuart Ritchie explained over at UnHerd at the start of the month. That the new strain appears to be more contagious, but not more deadly or vaccine-resistant, is a relief; but one reason to keep tough restrictions on movement in place, particularly after the positive news about vaccines in the summer, was to prevent the risk of a new mutant strain.

So broadly, the general problem with the Christmas unlocking (a dangerous and logistically fraught redistribution of coronavirus cases around the UK) and the specific (London’s rising number of cases) – was known in advance. The new strain is just one of the possible consequences of the decisions made by the government since the summer, and it should not be considered “bad luck” any more than milk spoiling after being left out the fridge is “bad luck”. It’s the predictable and predicted consequence of your own actions, nothing more.

[see also: Boris Johnson’s belated U-turn over Christmas needs an economic stimulus to match​]

That said, the British government’s reaction to its mistake looks to have been pretty good: it has quickly and transparently informed global and regional health authorities about the problem. The reaction of various governments around the world is also a sensible precaution. The new strain may already be present worldwide but there is the possibility that it can still be contained – and, thanks to the positive news about vaccines, slowing the spread of infections at the present time will still save thousands of lives. The UK’s quarantine is the result of the UK behaving like a responsible nation – and this is true of the countries quarantining the UK, too.

The quarantine has nothing to do with Brexit, nor does it give us a particular insight into the prospects of a Brexit deal. The UK faced similar quarantine measures on the sale of British beef during the bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) outbreak in 1995, at a time when the leaders of all the UK’s major parties were committed to membership of the European Union, and the Conservative Party was officially agnostic about whether or not to join the single European currency. The United Kingdom has been quarantined by countries as far afield as India, Morocco and Israel – none of which, it may surprise you to learn, are member states of the EU.

The British government has failed to act quickly in the face of the predicted and predictable consequences of its lockdown strategy and its plans for Christmas, and has created a mess of its own making by opting not to extend the Brexit transition period when it still had the legal ability to do so earlier this year. The variant strain is not some unpredictable crisis, but neither is the quarantine imposed on the UK a consequence of its Brexit strategy, or an insight into the state of the negotiations.