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17 May 2021updated 18 May 2021 10:25am

The spread of the Indian Covid variant has exposed the UK’s shortcomings

Britain still lacks an effective approach on isolation, whether through quarantine or more generous sick pay.  

By Stephen Bush

Groups of up to six people can meet inside, with up to 30 permitted outside, in England, Wales and much of Scotland from today as the UK heads towards the end of lockdown (Glasgow and Moray will remain under tougher restrictions to combat the greater number of cases there). 

But two things are causing consternation in government: the first is the new, faster-spreading B.1.617.2 variant, the second is the small group of British people who may refuse to get the vaccine. (Those of us who have yet to be offered a vaccine may be entitled at this point to feel somewhat irate that the Westminster government’s thinking is already turning to how to deal with the recalcitrant, but that’s a debate for another time.)

[Hear more on the New Statesman podcast]

The plain facts are these: the evidence so far is that while the B.1.617.2 variant responds well to vaccines, it spreads faster. But it is a cause of particular anxiety for the government because of how long India – from where this variant springs – remained off the UK’s red list of countries subject to the strictest travel rules. If B.1.617.2 does delay the great unlocking, that will be in no small part the government’s fault, not least because 18 months on we are still no closer to having an effective approach on isolation of people testing postive for Covid, whether through central quarantine or sufficiently generous sick pay.

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So you can see why it suits Downing Street to nudge the conversation away from that issue and towards the minority of vaccine-hesitant Brits. But again, there are some important facts to be aware of: the most vaccine-hesitant British person, regardless of class, race or religion, is more likely to be keen on getting vaccinated than the median person in most other countries. (For reasons that aren’t fully clear, the British public is really keen on getting vaccinated. And thankfully, thus far, no amount of disinformation, whether it be spread by traditional media à la the MMR vaccine, by religious organisations as with the HPV vaccine, or by social media as with coronavirus vaccines, has yet to make a dent in that.) 

So there is a choice to be made about whether to live in some form of perpetual on-again, off-again arrangement, because we are never going to have a 100 per cent-vaccinated population at home or abroad. As the lockdown ends, the British government will need to have a grown-up conversation, both about its own shortcomings and, equally importantly, about the level of risk we are willing to have in exchange for a return to normality.