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Matt Hancock

Matt Hancock. Photo: Simon Dawson / No 10 Downing Street / Flickr / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0, license linked at bottom of article

Never mind dealing with the new variants effectively, Johnson's government is still failing to implement measures it should have done a year ago, writes Terina Hine

A report in today’s Times claims government ministers were informed by Sage two weeks ago of the need for enhanced border controls and blanket hotel quarantine - but not wanting to break a habit of a lifetime, the government chose not to follow the science.

Banning flights alone from selected countries is, and always was, insufficient to prevent the spread of new variants of Covid-19. But this was the government’s only solution back in December when new variants were first identified, and remains the only restriction in place today.

At some point we will have targeted hotel quarantine for new arrivals from “red zone” countries. But not just yet.

And while we wait for the government to grasp a sense of urgency, new variants of the virus continue to spread and mutate.

Today Nicola Sturgeon announced that anyone entering Scotland from abroad will go into “managed quarantine”. Having almost eliminated the disease in early summer Sturgeon said that opening of borders to international travel was a major factor enabling Covid to take hold once again.

An additional concern is that while case numbers remain so high, the virus can mutate, risking vaccine efficacy - and a partially vaccinated population provides an excellent breeding ground for vaccine-resistant mutations.

So will the national government follow where Scotland leads?

According to the leaked Sage minutes,

“No intervention, other than a complete, pre-emptive closure of borders, or the mandatory quarantine of all visitors upon arrival in designated facilities, irrespective of testing history, can get close to fully preventing the importation of new cases or new variants.”

But, politicians, not scientists, apparently know best, and at the insistence of Boris Johnson, supported by Dominic Raab and Grant Shapps, the government opted for a policy of “targeted quarantine” - hotel quarantine for arrivals from high-risk countries only.

As no travellers can arrive directly from these “red zone” countries they will need to self identify - and with an estimated £1,500 hotel bill the incentive to do so may be limited. Could it be that the scientific advice is correct and only blanket quarantine measures are workable?

Perhaps this is why a full week after the announcement there are still no details as to when the system will be implemented or how it will be policed.

Since March 2020 Australia has required overseas travellers to quarantine in designated hotels; in New Zealand there is a strictly managed isolation and quarantine programme for all arrivals; the same is true for South Korea and Taiwan. And now managed quarantine for all arrivals will occur in Scotland.

Gene sequencing has discovered 105 cases of the new “South African” variant in the U.K. The new variant has spread widely: areas where the strain has been identified include parts of London and the South East, Bristol, the West Midlands and the North West. The new strain is clearly spreading freely across the country.

So what is being done? A massive door-to-door testing regime was initiated Tuesday morning in areas where the virus has been detected. This is excellent and will provide evidence as to the extent of the spread and enable asymptomatic carriers to isolate.

But that’s it. Matt Hancock, the health secretary, requested that people in identified areas take “extra-special precautions” and that they should “think twice” before leaving home, but explicitly ruled out additional restrictions - people remain free to travel from the identified postcode areas to other neighbourhoods, and those who currently go out to work may continue do so.  

If the spread of new variants is to be curtailed and the cycle of endless lockdowns avoided, additional restrictions are essential: managed quarantine for international travellers introduced, the definition of “essential work” amended, nurseries closed, and those who test positive supported to stay at home and not made to choose between isolating or eating.

Time and again the government has proved incapable of taking effective and decisive action.

In December they widened the list of quarantine exemptions to include journalists, film directors and performing arts professionals; the same month the new Kent and South African variants were identified. It took until last week for these exemptions to be removed.

It took until 18 January before the government required arrivals at our borders to present a negative Covid test.

And a year into the pandemic, with more than 100,000 dead we still we do not have a properly monitored quarantine system in place.

The government’s Covid plan is based entirely on its vaccine strategy. We know more is needed. Vaccines alone will not get us out of this mess.

Unless the government recognises this the UK is likely to continue to outpace the rest of world in mutations, infections and deaths alongside the corresponding economic collapse for a long time to come.

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