Angela Merkel’s proposal to quarantine UK travellers entering the EU is a big mistake

·4-min read
‘Angela Merkel wants to quarantine UK travellers, but a decision taken anywhere is a decision affecting lives everywhere’ (AP)
‘Angela Merkel wants to quarantine UK travellers, but a decision taken anywhere is a decision affecting lives everywhere’ (AP)

When we look back at the global handling of the pandemic response, we will be disappointed at the lack of international coordination. Too often, decisions taken in one corner of the world have been at odds with those taken in another. This is a problem when we have a virus that is highly transmissible and doesn’t respect borders. In fact, the only thing moving faster than the virus – and with an equally flagrant disregard for borders – is information itself.

Leaders must coordinate and offer their decisions with clarity, accounting for consequences elsewhere and in the future. The application of this principle is why Angela Merkel’s proposal to quarantine British travellers entering the EU would be a mistake. Proceeding with it would deal another hammer blow to the ailing travel sector and mean the European Union will eventually have to break its own internal rules and prevent travel between member states.

The data is clear that Delta is a dominating strain and highly transmissible. In the UK, it is now accountable for more than 90 per cent of new cases. On the face of it, quarantines for those arriving from the UK look like a good idea. This is until we dig deeper and understand where the data comes from.

Genomic sequencing – essentially the testing of tests to see not just if someone is Covid positive, but the strain they’re positive with – is used to identify new variants and find variants of concern. It has a huge bearing on whether it is safe to receive travellers from a particular country.

Here, the UK can genuinely lay claim to a world-beating system, sequencing 30 per cent of its cases between 1 January and 16 June compared to just 1 per cent in France, 2 per cent in Italy and 8 per cent in Germany. This makes it inevitable that the UK will discover and find more variants compared to its European neighbours, and the likelihood is that Delta (like its predecessor, Alpha, or the ‘Kent’ strain) has been present in more parts of more countries than we’ll ever know.

As nations build their genomic sequencing capacity and given the dominant characteristics of the Delta strain, it’s inevitable that more cases will be identified in countries like Germany, regardless of quarantine periods for British travellers. This will happen quickly. Indeed, the variant accounted for three in 10 German cases last week – a higher number than Portugal last month, where Delta now accounts for 70 per cent of sequenced cases.

This sets a precedent where EU countries would start imposing restrictions on each other as Delta cases rise, undermining the admirable plans for an EU-wide Covid Pass that would grant the fully-vaccinated quarantine-free travel. To avoid this precedent, Germany and others should instead turn to much more robust and universal data: the impact of vaccines.

We know the fully vaccinated are much less likely to carry the virus and Germany should be advocating for restrictions on UK travellers to be based solely on proof of their Covid status, with Britain contributing to a Europe-wide Covid Pass.

Of course, this will require a level of coordination that remains unseen in this pandemic and which was particularly absent when it came to administering the AstraZeneca vaccine. Confusion still reigns over who can ‘safely’ take it and how effective it is – in some countries it’s been banned for those over 60 while in others, including our own, it’s advised that those under 40 do not receive it.

The reality is that it’s a safe, effective, easy to transport vaccine that will be the workhorse of the global vaccination effort. That is, of course, if people still choose to have it. A decision taken anywhere is a decision affecting lives everywhere, and the confusing messaging emanating from Europe has had a knock-on effect, with countries such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Malawi seeing AstraZeneca doses sat on shelves and sometimes even destroyed.

Peel back the layers of misinformation and confusion, and it becomes clear that the AstraZeneca vaccine is working well, even against Delta, and the benefit of getting the vaccine when cases are high outweighs the risks of blood clots across all age groups. Every dose that goes unused is a travesty. As the only country administering both the AstraZeneca and Pfizer vaccine at scale – around 44 million and 27 million doses respectively – the UK has a big role to play in correcting this, whether we like it or not.

It’s thanks to this that we’ve seen the relationship between cases and hospitalisations crumble, and it’s also created an exceptional dataset. This data – showing the positive impact of both types of vaccines – should be made available immediately with health outcomes broken down by age, vaccine type and status.

It will be Britain’s gift to the world, a simple message that has become unnecessarily confused and complicated: get vaccinated, get your country closer to normal and reduce your risk of dying from Covid dramatically. And a valuable reminder that there is still time to set a precedent of global collaboration and coordination.

Ryan Wain is political director of the Tony Blair Institute

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