TThe absence of a long-term strategy to manage Covid-19 has been a persistent flaw in the government’s response to the pandemic. Although the NHS deserves great credit for its successful vaccination program, the trajectory of the UK epidemic remains a roller coaster ride, with positive news about vaccination rates followed by the emergence of worrying new variants. The latest example of this tumultuous journey is the search for a single case of a new variant first identified in Brazil that may partially evade the protection offered by vaccines.
Part of the problem is the porous nature of England’s public health controls and the government’s reluctance to implement stricter public health measures at ports and airports. Although travelers to England arriving from countries on the government’s red list must now be quarantined in a hotel for 10 days, a policy that was only put in place almost a year after Covid-19 first entered the UK, the Brazilian variant has already been found in at least 15 countries that are not included in this list. Six cases of the variant have so far been identified in the United Kingdom: three in England and three in Scotland.
Quarantining people at ports and points of arrival is a long-standing and highly effective measure to stop the entry of infectious diseases. In the past, quarantine was taken very seriously in England, and evading quarantine or falsifying documentation was a capital offense under the 1800 quarantine records. But the government has been reluctant to interfere with travel during the coronavirus pandemic.
England’s economy depends in part on the global movement of goods and transport, making mandatory quarantine a politically contentious move. But given the effectiveness of quarantine as a disease control measure, and the fact that variants can arise from anywhere, it is foolish and puzzling that ministers have opted for what effectively amounts to voluntary isolation for people arriving from countries that are not in government. Red list.
Politicians can hope that vaccines will eventually solve the UK epidemic for good. And the vaccination program has certainly been a big step forward, which speaks volumes for the NHS’s ability to respond during a crisis. But the danger of putting all our eggs in this basket is that new variants may emerge that circumvent the protection of vaccines. The Brazil variant can potentially re-infect those who have already caught Covid-19. Although it is not yet known whether this variant bypasses the vaccines we are currently using in the UK, if a variant cannot be tamed by vaccines the effects can be like hitting a reset button in the pandemic.
That is why the government must establish its game plan to suppress Covid-19 in the long term. The vaccination program will advance in part to eradicate the virus, but vaccines alone will not accomplish this. Although they prevent people from getting seriously ill, it is not clear whether they prevent transmission. And we still don’t have an approved vaccine for people under the age of 18. Even if younger people don’t get seriously ill from Covid-19, we know that there is a significant risk that they will develop Covid for a long time. If we take our foot off the brake, the virus could spread rapidly among young people in schools and universities. Although this would not necessarily lead to the hospitalization of people, it would create opportunities for new variants to emerge.
In addition to vaccinating people, what is needed is an effective, community-led public health strategy to identify and control new cases. As the number of people who test positive decreases, we have a window of opportunity to regain this control. It will be particularly important to provide help in areas where the virus has been most prevalent, such as those with high levels of deprivation, overcrowded housing, and ethnic minority and black communities.
Working through local communities, public health teams should embrace the internationally recommended approach of testing all close contacts of those who test positive for Covid. As with quarantine, this seems like a logical policy; those who have come into contact with someone who has tested positive are at high risk of infecting themselves, even if they do not have any symptoms. But instead of doing this, the government advises close contacts of those who have tested positive to come forward only if they develop symptoms.
The only way to prevent new variants from spreading in the UK is to eliminate the virus completely, not just at home, but abroad as well. One of the most important ways to do this will be through vaccine exchange programs. The UK and the US have already been generous sponsors of the Covax plan to deliver Covid-19 vaccines in low-income countries. As of March 3, a total of 10m dose they have been shared between 15 countries. But this is still a small amount compared to what it will take to control the virus. Only once we have global control over infections will the UK be truly safe from the risks of future variants of Covid.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism