Variants threaten UK’s control of pandemic

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The UK is third in the world for the percentage of vaccines given to the population. At the time of writing, over 15% of the population have been vaccinated; this is a cause for rare praise of our government. However, coronavirus variants and the government’s failure to prevent the spread of such threatens to undermine vaccine success.  

There are currently three major variants causing global concern. The British variant, the South African variant, and the Brazilian variant. All three appear significantly more contagious than the original variant. The risk is that this leads to increased hospital admissions and ultimately, deaths. Furthermore, there are also significant concerns that the vaccines already in circulation may not be effective against the new strains – this is a particular concern with the South Africa strain. 

The government failed to act quickly enough.

Early trial data released last week from the Novavax and Johnson & Johnson vaccines showed reduced efficiency against the South Africa strain. Moderna and Pfizer have also said that their vaccines may be less effective against this strain. 

This is concerning. The British variant has spread rapidly across the world and the South Africa strain is already present in the UK, with the government ordering mass testing in locations across the country in an effort to contain it. The government failed to act quickly enough. 

Even with the knowledge of the rapidly spreading coronavirus, Boris Johnson was still committed to Christmas. An earlier and stricter lockdown could have prevented the variant domestic spread. The government has also failed at our borders. 

The irony of having spent the past five years campaigning to be in control of our borders should not be overlooked. While the mandatory quarantine has been in place since the summer, in effect the vast majority of travellers were not contacted to ensure they were complying with the quarantine requirements. Similarly, the UK has only just introduced the requirement of a negative test to be able to enter the country, and the rules regarding quarantine hotels are still somewhat ambiguous. 

The countries that have been most successful at preventing the spread of coronavirus (according to the Lowy institute) are New Zealand, Vietnam and Taiwan have all succeeded in largely eliminating coronavirus. Their success should be attributed to a combination of early screening, effective and strictly enforced methods of isolation and quarantine as well as the use of masks and the success of using digital tracking to identify potential cases. Countries such as New Zealand and Australia (which ranked 8th in the Lowy table) have also enforced strict lockdowns over small outbreaks. 2 million people in Perth were placed under lockdown restrictions last week after a single positive test result. This may seem like an over-reaction, but it is working. 

Dido Harding must be criticised. She has repeatedly stated that coronavirus variants were impossible to predict. This is a lie. Scientists have been concerned about variants from the start of the pandemic. Her track and trace system has been chaotic from the start. Put simply, Dido Harding does not appear qualified enough for the incredibly crucial role she was given; Boris Johnson and the government bear the blame for this. 

The UK promised to be world beating. To a certain degree it is. It has the worst economic downturn and at times, the highest death rate in the world. The failure of our government to actively prepare for or prevent the spread of variants is just one in a long list of failures that one day the Conservatives will have to reckon with. There are lives at stake. If the government does not change course, they risk their vaccine success. The ban on travel during lockdown, proposed quarantine hotels, and mass testing are steps in the right direction, but they have yet to be fully enforced, and to be frank, are too late.

Image: Marco Verch Professional via Flickr

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