The struggle against the Covid pandemic will be measured in years, not months. This much has been made clear by the virus’s lethal advance across India and the Global South. Britain, however, is in an immeasurably stronger position than it was a year ago. The vaccine roll-out, a model of mission-led, public-private innovation that only the state can lead, has dramatically reduced deaths, hospitalisations and cases. Around 70 per cent of adults have received one dose and nearly 40 per cent have had two.
For once, the promise of a return to normality may not be a hollow one. But it is far from unconditional. The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies estimates that the B.1.617 “Indian” variant may be 50 per cent more transmissible than the Kent variant that was proliferating at the end of last year. Its spread in the UK may thwart the planned full unlocking on 21 June. The number of unvaccinated adults, scientists warn, is high enough to cause a resurgence in hospitalisations similar to or larger than previous peaks. In addition, as our medical editor Phil Whitaker writes, “both nationally and internationally there are documented cases of hospitalisation among fully vaccinated individuals who have contracted the Indian variant”.
[See also: Reclaiming meritocracy]
Throughout the pandemic, the virtues of swift intervention have been demonstrated. Those states – New Zealand, Taiwan, Singapore – that imposed rapid lockdowns and border closures recorded dramatically fewer deaths.
Yet it is this lesson that Boris Johnson’s government has once again neglected.
Public Health England (PHE) placed the Indian variant under investigation on 1 April, but it took another three weeks before India was finally added to the UK’s “red list” (which bars foreign travel to countries with high infection rates and mandates a ten-day hotel quarantine period for visitors returning from them). By that time, at least 20,000 passengers who may have been infected with the new strain had arrived in Britain from India. Data from PHE show that of the 3,345 people who entered from India between 25 March and 7 April, 4.8 per cent tested positive for Covid-19 (compared to an infection rate of 0.1 per cent in England).
What explains the UK government’s delay? The suspicion is that Boris Johnson dithered on account of his planned trip to India – an important international ally – to discuss a future post-Brexit trade deal on 25 April (Bangladesh and Pakistan were added to the red list on 9 April). As before, the false divide between protecting public health and protecting the economy may have imperilled the people of Britain. But the rapid spread of new Covid strains – the Indian variant will soon become dominant in the UK – is one of the greatest impediments to business.
A government that routinely champions its commitment to border control has repeatedly failed to shield Britain from new waves of infections. It was not until February 2021, a year after the Covid-19 crisis began, that the Johnson administration introduced a hotel quarantine policy. Rather than maintaining an arbitrary “traffic light” system, the UK should require all visitors to have proof of vaccination and a negative test result (as do the United States and the European Union).
The Covid crisis was a warning from the future; a product of a globalised era in which viruses and other lethal threats traverse borders with ease. Our response must be to strengthen both national and global resilience against future pandemics. As the spread of new variants has demonstrated, a successful vaccine roll-out on its own is no guarantee of safety.
As the UK reopens, ministers would do well to remember Dr Rieux’s response to “the cries of joy” at the close of Albert Camus’s great novel The Plague, which was much cited at the start of the Covid pandemic. “The plague bacillus never dies or vanishes entirely,” the doctor reflects, and the day may come when, “for the instruction or misfortune of mankind”, it rouses its rats to die in “some well-contented city”.
This article appears in the 19 May 2021 issue of the New Statesman, In defence of meritocracy