In a year of sorrow and anxiety, this week has been particularly sombre. On the January 26, almost 12 months to the day since the first British nationals tested positive for Covid-19, Britain passed the grim milestone of 100,000 deaths from the virus, one of the highest death rates in the world.
But though there has been much criticism of the Government’s approach, at present it is somewhat tempered – even among opposition MPs – by a sense that the country must pull together while the vaccine is rolled out. That view was summarised neatly by Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick, who told Times Radio on Tuesday “there will be a time when we will look back and say with hindsight there are things the Government could have done differently. But that time is not now”.
I think Jenrick is wrong on this point. Far from reflecting at some point in the future, many thousands of lives depend on us learning the lessons of the last 12 months of abject failure right away. That said, I do think Jenrick’s view has some currency among the wider population, hence the stubborn Conservative lead in the opinion polls. Accounts will probably be settled only when the acute existential anxiety of the last 10 months begins to melt away.
In learning where we have gone so wrong, and seeking to remedy it, the success of various east Asian countries is particularly instructive. Mortality rates range from less than 1 death per million in Taiwan, Vietnam and Thailand, compared to the current seven-day average in Britain of 16.54 per 1,000,000.
These countries’ successes are also a useful rejoinder to those unwilling to countenance comparisons to New Zealand or Australia in Britain’s Covid-19 response. It is frequently argued by supporters of the Government that London, unlike the two nations down under, is a global hub, making it geographically susceptible to the spread of the virus. This argument falls down for several reasons – the most obvious being that it’s probably unwise to continue operating as a ‘global hub’ during a deadly global pandemic. The argument comes apart entirely when one looks at countries such as South Korea and Taiwan, neither of which are exactly provincial backwaters.
We should also dispense once and for all with the kind of saloon bar nonsense about Asian countries being so culturally different to the West that we could never possibly replicate their approach. At times this brand of ‘Covid Orientalism’ seems to suggest these countries owe their success to some kind of mysteriously obedient Confucian mindset, rather than effective policymaking.
It is true that countries in East Asia already had established test-and-trace systems in place prior to the emergence of SARS-CoV-2 due to previous SARS and MERS outbreaks. But strict strategies of border control and targeted quarantine – policies implemented in both South Korea and Taiwan from the start of the current pandemic – were one of the most important factors in controlling cases of Covid-19. These are policies that are easily replicable in an island nation such as Britain, whatever our other cultural differences.
East Asia also offers a pertinent lesson for so-called lockdown sceptics, who have frequently railed against the restrictions imposed to stop Covid spreading. It is of course true that lockdowns do severely damage the economy, but the need to lock down for long periods is itself a consequence of a wider failure to get to grips with the virus.
While Britain has spent nearly a year in a miserable cycle of lockdown and release, causing a 10% contraction in its GDP – the largest of the G7 according to the IMF – Taiwan’s economy grew by 2% in 2020 and is expected to grow by 3.2% this year. Unsurprisingly, Taiwan’s approach to the pandemic was underpinned by tight border controls and rigorous contact tracing, as well as properly covering the cost of a 14-day quarantine. During the summer, as Britons fanned out on package holidays all over Europe, travellers arriving in Taiwan from even lower-risk countries still had to be tested and quarantined.
It wasn’t until this week that the British government announced – almost a year into the pandemic – that it would finally be enforcing a ban on foreign travel for the purposes of leisure. Home Secretary Priti Patel also announced a policy of forced quarantine for those arriving in Britain from a growing ‘red list’ of Covid hotspots.
But huge gaps in Britain’s defences remain. For example, there is little to stop a person travelling to Britain from a ‘hotspot’ via a third country. Moreover, due to the paucity of genetic sequencing in many countries, the demarcation of ‘hotspots’ from other parts of the world is illusory. A recent study found that the original version of the virus was introduced to the UK “well over a thousand times in early 2020”. Indeed, during the first wave fewer than 0.1% of cases came to UK from ‘hotspots’ such as China, while 62% came from France and Spain.
As vaccines are rolled out through 2021, the calculus of risk will change for Britain. While things tentatively open up, SARS-CoV-2 will continue to flare up in outbreaks across the world for years to come. Therefore it’s imperative for rich countries to ensure that effective vaccines reach poor and developing countries. As has been said repeatedly already, none of us will be safe until everyone is safe. The biggest threat to the vaccination programme is the emergence of antibody resistant variants. The E484K mutation is one such example and has been shown to escape some of the antibodies triggered by natural infection. As the virologist Stephen Goldstein has put it, “E484K is really the bad boy here”. But more damaging variants may yet emerge.
While vaccines are distributed across the world – and while sequencing improves so that new variants can be picked up early – we have two main defences here in the UK. The first is to keep cases rates extremely low so that fewer rogue variants can emerge. The second is tight border control. The latter should take the form of a blanket ban on travel in the short term, with an opening up (buttressed by strict quarantine measures) as substantial numbers of vaccines are rolled out across the globe. The short-termist approach of inadvertently deferring painful decisions until it is too late has already contributed to Britain’s disastrous death toll. If we’re not careful, similar mistakes could yet conspire to turn the experience of 2020 into the ‘new normal’ we are all so desperate to escape.
“The world is at a critical juncture,” said the director of the Welcome Trust, Jeremy Farrar, yesterday. “With the emergence of new, more transmissible variants globally… every country is now at risk of returning to square one.”
Against this backdrop, Britain must take a generous and internationalist approach when it comes to getting the vaccine out to the developing world. In the meantime, as new variants emerge, we should pay closer attention to the relative success stories of East Asian countries in dealing with the pandemic. Controlling our borders properly would be an important start.
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