We can’t afford to make the same mistake on borders yet again

There is a debate raging within Cabinet about whether Britain should close borders to foreigners as the risks grow from new mutant Covid-19 strains. 

The UK has already ended all travel corridors, required pre-departure testing, and banned travel from South Africa, South America and Portugal. Now there is talk of GPS trackers to enforce quarantine and perhaps making arrivals pay to stay in hotels for isolation.

The lack of action on borders will go down as one of the Government’s key mistakes in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Open borders were part of the UK’s defeatist initial approach to the virus.

The UK’s New and Emergency Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (NERVTAG) not only advised against border closures but also recommended against even screening for infected travellers at airports and ports. NERVTAG’s view on January 21, almost exactly a year ago, was that “even more stringent method, such as closing the borders to 50 per cent of people, would only delay the UK outbreak, not prevent it.”

The UK did not require travellers to isolate until early June, after millions of people arrived into the country unchecked. Even then it was just poorly enforced at-home quarantine, putting other household members, who would not be required to isolate, at risk. 

These restrictions were loosened within a month by the establishment of numerous travel corridors to allow people to take holidays throughout the summer. Scientists subsequently determined in October that most of the UK’s new cases were a strain of the virus that originally appeared in Spain and entered the UK in July. The UK likely largely defeated the virus, then allowed it to enter once more — truly showing that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. 

The European Union made similar mistakes to the UK. They kept both internal and external borders wide open until late March, and then reopened internal borders by summer. This allowed outbreaks to spark throughout Europe in January and February, and then be carried by travellers into the UK and across much of the rest of the world, with the consequential hundreds of thousands of deaths. The EU’s openness proved deadly. 

Even with mutant strains spreading across the continent, EU leaders decided on Thursday evening that internal borders should remain open, albeit with new testing requirements from non-EU countries. 

The contrast with the Australian approach could not be starker. On February 1 last year, Australia closed her borders to individuals who had been in China during the past two weeks. This, along with a similar ban by the United States and Singapore, was slammed at the time as a xenophobic overeaction. 

World Health Organization director-general Tedros Ghebreyesus, who was backed for the position by China, spoke out against measures that “unnecessarily interfere with international travel and trade”. He described border closures as not evidence-based. 

The decision to prevent tens of thousands of Chinese international students from entering Australia for the start of the university year likely prevented a large number of deaths. Australia then introduced a compulsory 14-day hotel quarantine when arrivals from Europe and the United States began presenting with Covid-19 in March. 

The border measures, combined with mostly effective testing and tracing, has meant Australia has been largely Covid-free for months. The beaches are open, bars and restaurants are operating, and people are getting on with their lives mostly as normal. 

It hasn’t been a perfect story. There have been leaks out of hotel quarantine, resulting in substantial lockdowns. It has been hugely costly to the international tourism and student sectors, as well as Australians stuck overseas who cannot make it back due to draconian caps on arrivals.

Border measures should always be used sparingly. Limiting the ability of your citizens to come and leave as they wish is no walk in the park. There will also always be a need for some movement, to keep supply chains moving, ensuring citizens can always return home, and specialist expertise can get into a country. 

Limiting movement should always be taken using a risk-based approach: it does not make much sense, for example, for the UK to restrict entry from countries with no cases of Covid-19. It would also be wise to shorten isolation to around 5 days on the condition of a pre-departure and two post-arrival tests.

Nevertheless, the expert consensus against border closures has been proven dangerously wrong. Opposition to border control was driven by a bizarre idea of solidarity and experience based on other viruses that do not have an asymptomatic period of spread. 

There is finally light at the end of the tunnel, provided by a vaccine programme speeding ahead. The vaccines, however, could be undermined by a non-responsive mutation, in particular the new strain from Brazil.

Fool me twice, shame on me. Fool me three times, shame on both of us. The UK cannot afford to make the same mistake on borders once again.

Source Article

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