25 January 2021

Close the borders now – there won’t be a second chance

By Alex Morton

Nothing would give me greater pleasure right now than a holiday somewhere warm. I suspect that this is true of many. But this option has to remain off the table for some time to come. At present, border controls are being discussed in the same breath as school reopening at half term or Easter, or when pubs could serve again. But this totally misses the point: if a vaccine resistant strain arises in the UK then this will undo every single hope of a return to normality – no schools, restaurants, pubs, family visits, offices or anything. We will be back to square one just with a crippled economy and compliance exhaustion.

The success or failure of this Government hinges on how fast the UK returns to normality, with people allowed to behave as usual and Covid deaths and serious cases remaining low. The UK’s success in rolling out vaccines could massively boost this country. But if lax border controls allow a new strain that is vaccine resistant to enter, or escape, there will be severe implications across a number of fronts:

  • Economic costs: This would require at least another six months of lockdown.
  • The Union: A new strain in England could mean internal UK borders.
  • Social and health costs: Lockdown could collapse with severe ramifications.
  • Global leadership: The UK would be seen to have failed and jeopardised other nations.
  • The Conservative party would, put simply, risk collapse.

The risk is real. Chris Whitty has noted that as the vaccine programme is underway, there is a higher risk of a vaccine resistant virus emerging due to a high proportion of people who have only had one shot and so have only partial resistance. This may happen in the UK, but statistically it is more likely to happen overseas (as the UK population being vaccinated is smaller than the global population). We may be unlucky, but the odds are in our favour – as long as we close the borders.

Closed borders does not mean simply trying to play ‘catch-up’ and closing borders as and when new strains are identified. This approach has already failed, and at least three strains which seem to have clinical implications have already spread globally – the South African, Brazilian, and UK identified strains. This means sealing borders as Australia, New Zealand and Taiwan have done, only allowing in returning residents and a few, usually compassionate exemptions. It means observed quarantine for 14 days for all new entrants at their own cost. It certainly does not mean holidays, extended family visits and so on, not least since to make border controls work, numbers have to be very low. By minimising those entering and exiting the UK, the spread of any vaccine resistant strain can be brought as close to zero as possible.

Border closures would be temporary

One of the arguments against a travel ban is that this restriction will never be eased back. But it is fairly obvious that as countries bring their own Covid-19 levels close to zero, the UK can resume travel with them in closed corridors. This does mean a phased re-entry of the UK into the world, but it certainly is not a permanent closure. Indeed, as discussed below, this action by the UK should be part of a global approach which should benefit all countries by minimising the spread of vaccine resistant strains until all countries have seen their populations vaccinated. But while other countries have high case numbers, and so high rates of mutation, the border should remain almost entirely sealed, so that if a new strain emerges, we are protected. The costs of failing to lock down like this are huge.

A huge economic blow for no real gain

If a vaccine-resistant strain enters the country it could mean living under lockdown for another six months or a year before a new vaccine can be developed and administered. The UK’s economy will already take until at least 2022 to recover to where it was, and the economic cost of that lost growth (i.e. growth we will never get back, not the temporary recession) is colossal – estimated at 5% of GDP. The IFS  estimated that the national debt had risen from 80% of GDP to 110% due to coronavirus, and this was before the announcement of the third lockdown. Assuming a new variant required a fairly strict lockdown, that implies another lost 5% of GDP and the national debt close to 150% of GDP in just a few years. This is ignoring the knock-on long-term economic and social costs of, for example, worse mental health or more domestic violence.

This pain would in no way be offset by any economic boost before any new strain arrived. The net effect on the UK economy of closing the borders would be minimal – while the UK would lose international tourists, who largely head to London, this could be offset by spending from domestic tourists. Spending would be pushed toward provincial England at the cost of aviation and high-end luxury goods and services based in London and overseas. If we do not close our borders, the Treasury should publish their calculations of the costs, benefits and risks of open borders so that they can be held to account if a new strain does arrive here.

Implications for the Union

If a new vaccine resistant strain enters England, the Scottish government will almost certainly (and understandably) seal the border, and Northern Ireland (albeit reluctantly), and Wales will likely follow suit. The Irish government has already indicated it is open to a Common Travel Area, given the complexity of the situation for Northern Ireland.

The SNP tried to rally support for internal border closures last year, but failed because it was clear that the virus had already spread across Scotland. But in the face of a new vaccine resistant strain which risks reversing any return to normality, the case for border closures will be stronger. Given the Brexit complexities in Northern Ireland are yet to be worked through, and in Scotland a new SNP electoral mandate is likely this year, sealing the borders would have severe implications for the Union.

If, on the other hand, Scotland does not close its borders and a vaccine resistant strain spreads from England, this will entrench the (unfair) view that Edinburgh has handled this much better than London, turbocharging support for independence. Either way, the Union is at risk. By contrast, sealing off the British Isles with the UK and Ireland together would both be medically prudent and avoid this major risk to the UK’s cohesion.

Social and health costs

Before the arrival of the new strain and the vaccine late last year there were signs that lockdown fatigue had begun to hit. The second lockdown, while supported by a majority, was less popular than the first, with a fall from 93% to 72% concentrated among the young. Just 59% of 18-24-year-olds backed the second lockdown. The case for the current lockdown is boosted by the vaccine, as normality is at least on the horizon.

Yet if a new vaccine resistant strain emerges, there is a real risk that compliance may collapse. People may not be willing to wait. Indeed, if a new vaccine resistant strain did arrive, what could the Government offer – other than potentially endless lockdowns? It is one thing to hold on for a few months to save lives. It is another to say that life can never return to any semblance of normality, particularly for those who may feel they are young and healthy. But the risk is that this collapse in compliance overloads the NHS – causing major social and health costs – which the Government would rightly be blamed for.

This collapse in lockdown would also have huge long-term implications for the governance of this country. Would the police try to force compliance as mass rule breaking took place, ending the very concept of policing by consent? This would take governing the UK into uncharted territory alongside potentially hundreds of thousands of deaths.

The UK’s global reputation

Of course, should a new vaccine resistant strain enter the UK from abroad, spread here and then go on to other countries before it was identified and travel shut down, the UK would rightly be seen as having failed in its global responsibilities. We did not know that variants could arise as easily as they have. The variant first identified in the UK as B.1.1.7. has now spread to over two dozen countries. Its spread, along with the Brazil and South African variants, will prolong the global economic damage and lead to many more deaths. Sealing our borders is the action of a responsible global player.

At the same time, the UK should be working with allies to make this a global response. Our pharmaceutical and scientific expertise should be leveraged, and the UK should be supporting production and distribution of the vaccine, and continued work against new strains wherever they emerge, while continuing research into new and cheaper vaccines. We should also – once our own population has all been vaccinated – be supporting other countries in their attempts to do so including, including by potentially purchasing and providing free vaccines to poorer countries. These are the kind of policies that will boost the UK’s reputation in the world, not allowing a handful of rich tourists to jet into and out of London.

Collapse of the Conservative Party

Given the dire outcomes for the economy, integrity of the UK, the NHS and our standing in the world, worrying about internal politics seems almost trivial. But the entry of a new strain from overseas would be devastating for the Conservative Party’s electoral prospects. Millions of people will have lost their jobs, especially those in the private sector. Provincial England in particular has suffered. By the time this finishes at least 100,000 will be dead, many alone in hospital away from their loved ones. After all this, to put normalisation at risk for what many Conservative 2019 voters will see as minimal economic gains to a handful of high-end London companies will seem unimaginable. The perennial Conservative electoral danger – being seen as the party of the incompetent rich – will be realised in spades.

There is also very strong public support for border controls. Currently 85% of UK voters think that a disease like Covid-19 re-emerging (which presumably includes new strains) should lead to people being refused entry to the UK, and 77% think that UK citizens should not be able to travel overseas. Currently 61% of people – even without the risk of new strains being raised – support stopping all inbound flights (including returning residents with no compassionate exemptions) and 80% support mandatory quarantine. These are close to the highest levels globally. Conservative voters are particularly in favour of border controls: while 78% strongly supported testing arrivals recently, 85% of Conservatives did, and while 77% backed quarantine for those from France and Holland last summer, 85% of Conservatives did.

No second chances

The one criticism now sticking is that the Government always does what it should – but several weeks too late. If a new vaccine-resistant strain arrives in the UK and begins to spread, it will already be too late.

We all have friends and family we would like to see abroad. We all want a holiday. But what government could take such a risk with the security of its people and not temporarily seal borders, only reopening them in corridors with each country as its national vaccine roll-out is complete. To do otherwise is a massive and lethal game of Russian roulette with our economy, constitution, health, and society.

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Alex Morton is Head of Policy at the Centre for Policy Studies.