The UK’s bodily isolation units it aside from its continental neighbours, however could its island standing have protected it from the total horror of Covid-19, had it closed borders in early 2020, as New Zealand and Taiwan did?
Both have been applauded for his or her environment friendly dealing with of the pandemic, with simply 33 Covid-19 deaths between them. Other island nations similar to Tonga, within the South Pacific Ocean, have reported no infections.
“To be an island in 2020 or 2021 is probably the greatest geographical gift you could have,” mentioned Prof Devi Sridhar, chair of world public well being on the University of Edinburgh.
So, as British instances begin to fall and discussions about easing lockdown restrictions resume, are there methods it could borrow to return it to normality?
From the UK’s shores, New Zealand’s present scenario appears idyllic: “After the lockdown(s), which were only required because border closure came too late, day-to-day life for most New Zealanders appears to be completely normal, and there are very few restrictions” mentioned Matt Boyd at Adapt Research Ltd in Reefton, New Zealand, who has modelled the impacts of border closures for island nations.
Even his personal pre-Covid predictions a couple of main lack of tourism revenues if New Zealand ever closed its borders, have not solely come to move. Tourist operators proceed to name for emergency funding, however the financial impression has been blunted by New Zealanders holidaying domestically, Boyd mentioned: “Socially there have been family separations, people unable to return home for funerals, or see dying loved ones. But the social, economic and political consequences in New Zealand seem less than in countries dealing with ongoing community transmission.”
This begs the query: would the UK now be in the same place, had it acted earlier? The UK confirmed its first Covid-19 case on 31 January – three weeks earlier than the virus arrived in New Zealand. “Logistically it would have meant making a decision very early on,” mentioned Boyd.
Yet velocity is of the essence, and different international locations managed it: “Taiwan and Hong Kong imposed the first measures as early as 31 December. South Korea, Thailand and Japan also responded quickly,” mentioned Kelley Lee, professor of world well being governance at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, Canada, whose crew lately reviewed 29 research modelling the impression of journey restrictions on Covid-19 transmission. “We found that if cross-border measures are going to work, they need to be applied early on.”
The British house secretary, Priti Patel, lately mentioned she had advocated shutting the UK’s borders in March. But though a sequence of journey measures had been launched in 2020 – together with issuing non-mandatory steerage to self-isolate for 14 days to travellers coming from designated high-risk international locations – this was withdrawn on 13 March, with no additional border measures in place till 8 June.
Genetic analysis revealed that Sars-CoV-2 was individually launched properly over a thousand occasions throughout early 2020 – largely from Spain, France, and Italy. “Late February to mid March were critical,” mentioned Prof Oliver Pybus on the University of Oxford, who led this analysis. “During this period, high numbers of incoming travellers from Europe coincided with large and growing epidemics in many European countries.”
The outcome was a number of chains of transmission being initiated in parallel at completely different places. This quickly overwhelmed the UK’s current capability for individual-level contact tracing. It additionally prevented the virus from being contained in a specific a part of the nation by means of a cordon sanitaire like in Wuhan, China. “It’s likely that the importations resulted in the early phase of epidemic growth accelerating faster than was expected,” mentioned Pybus. “Importations mean the virus can reach less well-connected or more remote parts of the country more quickly.”
The UK’s connectedness may additionally have put it at an obstacle. “Like France and Germany, we’re kind of in that position of connecting Asia and the Americas and Africa as a pretty central point in the world, so we have a lot of people connecting through but also coming here,” mentioned Andrew Tatem, professor of spatial demography and epidemiology on the University of Southampton. “That is something that governments always have to balance up, because a lot of our service industries are based on that connectivity.”
Even although fast motion should purchase a rustic time, it doesn’t utterly forestall virus from being imported – as additional small outbreaks in New Zealand have proven. “Governments need to use that time to put in place and fortify domestic public health measures – notably testing and quarantine,” mentioned Lee. “It is what governments do domestically in addition to cross-border measures that has contributed to how they’ve fared over the past year.”
It is probably not too late. Many British scientists would like to see the UK additional tighten its borders and pursue a “zero-Covid” technique within the coming months. “People talk about living with the virus. But what is that?” mentioned Martin McKee, a professor of European Public Health on the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine.
Either we attempt to remove the virus, which means minimising journey and sustaining lockdown restrictions till there are so few instances they are often managed by means of contact tracing – as New Zealand has executed – or ease restrictions earlier, within the hope that the vaccine will present an answer, McKee mentioned. It will nonetheless be many months earlier than everyone seems to be vaccinated, and new variants could also be imported from overseas.
The UK authorities isn’t satisfied concerning the want for blanket border restrictions. It can be scrambling to guide tens of 1000’s of lodge rooms to quarantine arrivals from 33 high-risk international locations on the UK journey ban listing, that are attributable to open on 15 February.
Speaking on the Commons transport select committee on Wednesday, the transport secretary, Grant Shapps, mentioned: “We are an island nation not like … Australia or one thing which is a whole continent – and that implies that we have to get medicines in, we have to get meals in, we have to get our uncooked supplies in, generally we have to maneuver individuals round, scientists and others.
It’s true the UK is more linked than Australia or New Zealand. But Taiwan is closely interconnected by way of commerce, and its meals self-sufficiency charge is 32%, making it closely reliant on meals imports. For the UK it’s about 64%.
However, it’s a misnomer to make use of the time period “border closure” to explain what different island nations have executed. “Few countries, if any, have completely closed their borders during this pandemic,” mentioned Lee. “Australia and New Zealand proceed to have travellers and commerce flowing into their international locations. But they have decreased these to important site visitors, they usually have then additionally launched screening, testing and quarantine measures that be certain that anybody and something coming into their international locations are virus-free.
“The task, therefore, is to decide what is essential versus non-essential traffic. It is essential that food supplies, medicines and key workers, for example, continue to flow across borders. However non-essential travel should be discouraged.”
The UK now faces the same dilemma: “We have a choice here between opening up in the UK or being able to travel abroad,” mentioned Sridhar. “Would you like to be able to socialise, have children at school, go to bars, watch live sports events, attend music events and get back to daily life, but at the expense of not being able to travel? Or would you like to go abroad and cross borders but live with tighter restrictions for the foreseeable future?.”
Ask a New Zealander which they might select.