Britain’s Virus Fight Enters its Guerrilla War Stage

Prime Minister Boris Johnson is due to provide a roadmap out of England’s lockdown restrictions on Feb. 22, but those in his party who want the curbs lifted are growing impatient. The U.K. government is on track to reach its target of vaccinating the top four priority groups by the middle of the month. The over-50s could be largely vaccinated by May. Infection rates and deaths are down by more than a quarter over the past week.

These are all welcome milestones in a bleak winter. But if Johnson’s government has been discouraging talk about booking summer holidays, and even imposing further restrictions, it’s because the fight against Covid-19 has entered a difficult new phase that demands more vigilance, not less. While vaccines are clearly the big guns in this battle, they aren’t enough on their own.

Nor will the shots be much use if they don’t work against new mutations. That’s the fear that finally prompted Johnson to get serious about border control. While existing vaccines have proved effective against the coronavirus variant dominant in the U.K., a small study has showed that the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine may provide only “minimal protection” against mild and moderate disease caused by the new South Africa variant. That’s warning enough against complacency.

From next week, U.K. nationals arriving from one of 33 “red list” countries face a 10-night hotel quarantine, along with a 1,750-pound ($2,416) bill for the stay. Scotland has gone further and imposed a hotel quarantine on all international passengers.

Those arriving from non red-listed countries to England will still have to self-isolate for 10 days and show proof of a negative test taken within 72 hours of departure. But now there’s another requirement to take a Covid test on days two and eight following their arrival. Travelers who want to purchase an extra test on day five under the U.K.’s “test to release” scheme can do so, allowing them to end self-isolation early.

Compliance, which has often been poor from travelers, ought to be a bit better now because of the possible punishments. Failing to quarantine will incur a fine of 5,000-10,000 pounds, while those caught lying on a passenger locator form could get up to 10 years in prison. There are penalties for failing to take a mandatory test. Airlines face a 2,000-pound penalty for any passenger who arrives without a completed locator form or an advance negative test.

These measures don’t match the toughness of Australia and New Zealand, where only residents can enter the country and all face a 14-night hotel stay on arrival. But the Antipodes have no land border with which to contend. The logistics for Britain, a major international travel hub, are more complex and costly. It took the government more than two weeks to negotiate the hotel accommodations for even more limited quarantine measures. 

Still, it shows how far Britain has come in a year since authorities in Wuhan locked down the region, while the World Health Organization inexplicably advised against travel bans. Travel quickly proved a principle vector for the virus. Those countries that controlled their borders and adopted rigorous policies to test, trace and isolate are in a much better place today than those that didn’t.

So far the South African variant remains limited to less than 150 known cases in the U.K. The government is aggressively imposing a test-and-trace strategy where the variant shows up — including door-to-door testing in some areas. A modified Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccination, effective against the new virus, should be ready by the autumn so those most at risk can get a booster shot.

Nonetheless, the existence of a potentially vaccine-resistant variant is a reminder that we’re no longer merely trying to flatten the curve of infections, hospitalizations and deaths. If national lockdowns have been akin to war-time measures, as politicians say, the next phases will be more like fighting against a guerrilla insurgency where a nimble enemy retreats and then shows up in odd places and infiltrates communities.

This new stage of the virus’s attack is winnable for the U.K. if it uses properly the resources it has developed. That means high levels of testing — the current 2.9 million weekly tests are a big improvement but more will be needed to lift lockdown restrictions. Contact-tracing and isolation can’t be allowed to fail again. Compliance is critical. Currently, only a third of people say they requested a test when they developed symptoms and a third didn’t isolate for the required period despite showing symptoms.

One big advantage against new variants is the U.K.’s leading genomic sequencing capabilities. As infection levels are brought down, it should be possible to sequence most positive tests so that any new variants can be discovered immediately. Britain has also offered sequencing assistance to countries with little or no technical capacity, and that isn’t mere altruism. There’s no way to reopen economies, including the travel and tourism industries, without international cooperation to identify new variants and supply vaccines.

The historian Barbara Tuchman’s adage that war is the unfolding of miscalculations certainly holds true for the virus’s rampant spread in Britain from early last year. The pace of reopening will disappoint some, but the government finally has both the knowledge of hindsight and the technical tools to make this phase a fair fight.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Therese Raphael is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. She was editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal Europe.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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