On the same day that the first wave of holidaymakers jetted off to Portugal, experts warned that the Covid variant first discovered in India was set to become the dominant strain in the UK within days. The rapid transmission of B.1.617.2 casts doubt over plans for a full reopening of the economy on 21 June, and could lead to local lockdowns or – according to one expert – require the reversal of some relaxations.
The government has been rightly criticised for its delay in putting India on the red list for travel. The issue now is whether it learns from its errors. While experts including Sir Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust, suggest that only “absolutely essential” travel should proceed, airlines and travel firms are already pressing for more countries to be moved to the green list. The government has told people not to holiday in amber list countries, but allows such holidays to remain on sale.
Many people are desperate to fly abroad to spend time with much-missed loved ones. Others simply long for new horizons. But the problems of relaxing controls are obvious, and polls suggest strong public support for restricting travel.
The UK risks exporting the B.1.617.2 variant to other countries that are less well protected due to a slower rate of vaccination. But travellers may also import new variants. While the UK hopes that the worst is over, the pandemic is raging globally, increasing the risk of mutations, and ultimately of new variants that could prove resistant to vaccines.
The delay in putting India on the red list has highlighted the vague criteria for categorising countries. Some people are travelling from red list locations via third countries to avoid hotel quarantine. Others sticking to green list countries will unwittingly mix there with people from places with higher infection rates. Even if those returning from an amber list destination are dutiful in completing two weeks’ quarantine at home, they are likely to have got there by public transport or taxi.
The risks are evident both from the many cases brought back to the UK by holidaymakers last year and from examples elsewhere. In early April, weeks before the UK put India on the red list, a plane from Delhi arrived in Hong Kong. Everyone on board had certificates showing that they had recently tested negative for the virus. Yet more than a third of them – 52 in all – subsequently tested positive.
Hong Kong’s strict rules for arrivals ensured that those cases were picked up by tests on arrival and during the mandatory hotel quarantine for all arrivals. The UK lacks those safeguards. Heathrow border staff say that they have spotted more than 100 fake certificates a day, and that those were only noticed due to glaring errors. While such checks are being made, travellers report queueing for hours, sometimes close to others from red list locations. The latter go into hotel quarantine, but by then they could already have passed on the virus to people who will subsequently board busy trains or buses.
Stopping the sale of holidays to amber list countries; tests on arrival; adequate resources at airports to keep apart passengers from different places; a properly enforced home quarantine system; and improvements in the test-and-trace system – these are the bare minimum required. The government’s decision to open up travel is a risky one. Doing it in this careless way is only compounding the dangers.