Was Boris Johnson Right To Fear Other Countries’ Covid Waves Will Wash Up In The UK?

Recent reminders that the virus can still catch us by surprise.

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Back in March, when the Covid third wave hit the rest of Europe, Boris Johnson was clearly worried about its impact on the UK. “People in this country should be under no illusions that previous experience has taught us that when a wave hits our friends, I’m afraid it washes up on our shores as well,” the PM said.

Fortunately, thanks to the dramatic impact of the vaccination programme on cutting transmission of the virus, it seems Johnson was for once being too cautious. The hearteningly relentless drop in cases, hospitalisations and deaths continued in the UK despite Covid taking off in France, Germany and elsewhere. All that, despite the first easing of our lockdown too.

Of course, after a slow start, EU states have been catching up with their own vaccination programmes, so much so that even “Professor Lockdown” himself, Neil Ferguson, said this week that he saw no reason why there couldn’t be summer holiday flights between Britain and such countries as France and Italy. New variants of the virus exist in the UK but in small, containable numbers, it seems.

It’s a mark of the government’s confidence about travel that it appears ready to publish its “green list” of safe countries as early as this Friday. Yes, the day after the May elections, that Johnson feelgood factor could be rolled out once more. The “global travel taskforce” already looks geared up to expand the list next month to include Greek Islands and Portugal, with more surely to follow.

And yet on Wednesday, we were given several reminders of just how carefully this vexed issue of foreign travel has to be handled. First, the entire Indian delegation in the UK for G7 talks has self-isolated after two Covid cases were detected among its group. Foreign minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, who met Priti Patel in person, pulled out of face-to-face meetings. Meanwhile, Johnson was snapped, breezily elbow-greeting several other G7 visitors.

Second, Israel earlier this week identified its first two cases of the Brazilian variant of coronavirus, as well as the first case of the Chilean strain. All three cases were discovered through genetic sequencing in vaccinated Israelis who had recently returned from abroad.

Third, and perhaps most eye-catching, the Seychelles – the most vaccinated country in the world – has reimposed lockdown style curbs after an unexplained surge in cases. The tiny country, where 60% of its population have had either the AstraZeneca jab or the Chinese Sinopharm jab, is closing schools, banning inter-household mingling and cancelling sporting activities for a fortnight.

Daniel Lucey, clinical professor of medicine at Dartmouth Geisel School of Medicine in the US, said in a blogpost: “Given the widespread international use of these two vaccines there are global implications to what is happening now in the Seychelles.”

The worry about the Seychelles is that the developing world is depending on both AstraZeneca (a not-for-profit jab) and Sinopharm (often gifted to countries as part of its vaccine diplomacy) to help them cope with the virus. The poorest on the planet need vaccination not for holidaymaking, but for survival. So Lucey was right to at least point up the possible implications

Is the Seychelles’ spike due to the sheer number of cases in India “washing up” on its shore? It could be. And a slightly deeper look at the numbers in the country suggests the vaccines are indeed working as expected, not least as Sinopharm has a 50% efficacy. If all goes to plan, the spike in cases won’t be followed by a spike in hospitalisations.

Until more data is in, European governments, many of which are balancing their own need to restart their tourism industries with the safety of their population, are likely to still plan on summer unlocking. Both transport secretary Grant Shapps and Johnson will be acutely aware of the political pitfalls of holding out hope on travel, only to dash it again.

It’s worth recalling the PM’s own words at his first press conference after coming out of hospital last year. “We’ve come under what could have been a vast peak, as though we’ve been going through some huge Alpine tunnel and we can now see the sunlight and the pasture ahead of us.”

Unlike last year, the vaccine rollout means that sunlight is not just tantalisingly close but it could be sustained. Johnson will be hoping that even if the virus laps up against our shores once more, the inoculated British population will roll up their trousers and carry on paddling in safety.


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