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Back in March, when the third wave of Covid hit the rest of Europe, Boris Johnson was clearly concerned about the impact on the UK. “The people of this country should not be under any illusions that previous experiences have taught us that a wave that hits our friends unfortunately also appears on our shores,” said the Prime Minister.
Fortunately, thanks to the dramatic impact the vaccination program had in reducing the transmission of the virus, Johnson seems to be exceptionally cautious. The gratifyingly relentless decline in cases, hospitalizations and deaths continued in the UK despite Covid taking off in France, Germany and elsewhere. All of this despite the initial relaxation of our lockdown.
Of course, after a slow start, the EU countries have caught up with their own vaccination programs to the point that even “Professor Lockdown” himself, Neil Ferguson, said this week that he saw no reason why there could be no summer vacation flights between the UK and countries like France and Italy. New variants of the virus are emerging in the UK, but appear to be in small, restrained numbers.
It is a token of the government’s confidence in travel that it appears ready to release its “green list” of safe countries this Friday. Yes, Johnson was able to reintroduce this feel-good factor the day after the May elections. The Global Travel Taskforce already appears to be aiming to expand the list to the Greek islands and Portugal next month, with more to come.
And yet we were reminded several times on Wednesday how carefully this annoying problem of overseas travel should be handled. First, the entire Indian delegation in the UK for G7 talks has self-isolated after discovering two Covid cases in their group. Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, who met Priti Patel in person, withdrew from face-to-face meetings. Meanwhile, Johnson was caught and greeted several other G7 visitors with an elbow.
Second, earlier this week, Israel identified its first two cases of the Brazilian variant of the coronavirus, as well as the first case of the Chilean tribe. All three cases were found by genetic sequencing in vaccinated Israelis who had recently returned from abroad.
Third, and perhaps most noticeably, Seychelles – the world’s most vaccinated country – have reintroduced lockdown-style curbs in some cases after an unexplained surge. The tiny country, where 60% of the population had either the AstraZeneca push or the Chinese Sinopharm push, is closing schools, banning household mixing, and canceling sports activities for two weeks.
Daniel Lucey, clinical professor of medicine at Dartmouth Geisel School of Medicine in the US, said in a blog post, “Given the widespread international use of these two vaccines, there is a global impact on what is happening in Seychelles now.”
The concern for Seychelles is that developing countries rely on both AstraZeneca (a nonprofit) and Sinopharm (often given away to countries as part of their vaccine diplomacy) to deal with the virus. The world’s poorest need vaccinations not to go on vacation, but to survive. So Lucey was right to at least point out the possible implications
Is the Seychelles surge due to the sheer number of cases in India “washing up” on its shores? It could be. A closer look at the numbers in the country suggests that the vaccines are actually working as expected, not least because Sinopharm is 50% effective. If everything goes according to plan, in some cases the spike is not followed by a spike in hospitalizations.
Until more data is available, European governments, many of whom balance their own need to restart their tourism industries with the safety of their people, are likely to continue planning the summer release. Both Transportation Secretary Grant Shapps and Johnson will be aware of the political pitfalls of raising hopes of traveling to destroy them again.
It is worth recalling the Prime Minister’s own words at his first press conference after he was discharged from the hospital last year. “We came under what might be a huge summit, as if we had driven through a huge alpine tunnel, and now we can see the sunlight and the pasture ahead of us.”
Unlike last year, the introduction of the vaccine means that sunlight is not only temptingly close, but can be sustained. Johnson will hope that even if the virus reappears on our shores, the vaccinated British population will roll up their pants and keep paddling safely.