If you’d told me in January 2020 that due to a global crisis it would be several years before I’d be allowed to see my foreign-based family again, my imagination would have run wild. What could possibly cause national borders to be shut and planes to be grounded across the world for that long? Anything short of all-out nuclear war would have surprised me. If you’d told me it was all down to a virus that spares 99 per cent of those it infects, I would not have believed you. Yet here we are.
I have a close-knit, far-flung family. My father and two youngest siblings live in Australia, which cut itself off from the rest of the world ten more than ten months ago and has announced it will likely stay closed until 2022, even, nonsensically, after its entire population has been inoculated against this pathogen. My aunt and another sibling live in the US, which under President Biden won’t be opening its gates any time soon either. My boyfriend lives in Germany, where Chancellor Angela Merkel is now toying with the prospect of slashing air travel to ‘almost zero.’ Boris Johnson is today clamping down on our already strict border restrictions by bringing in mandated hotel quarantine sentences for many overseas arrivals.
All of this I could make my peace with if it made sense, or had been proven a useful strategy elsewhere. Peru closed its borders back last March with only 28 confirmed cases and still ended up with the worst Covid fatality rate. The US has been shut to non-residents throughout the pandemic and isn’t winning any prizes for keeping deaths low.
The only countries to have found success with the Fort Knox approach are Australia and New Zealand. Both have indeed managed to largely tackle the virus from behind their tall walls, but to what end? Neither have a strategy for reopening. Britain has one of the best-connected global economies in the world; not only would such an approach have been unrealistic in the first place, but our window has long since passed.
Even now, even with one of the most concerning new Covid variants already endemic on our island, our Government's late-to-the-party implementation of these expensive, logistically-fraught quarantine hotels won’t necessarily catch the potentially more dangerous strains of the virus. We’re only quarantining arrivals from countries, South America and South Africa among them, that have found new variants by actively looking for them. That leaves the floodgates half open; a plan that has failed for us time and time again in causing maximum disruption for minimum gain.
We are teetering on the edge of a slippery slope. Once these quarantine hotels are up and running, it will be very difficult to ever justify dismantling them. That list of ‘risky’ countries will only lengthen. More industries will tank. More families will be kept apart. More milestones will be missed; the sort that make life worth living in the first place. And amid all this misery, the threat of infectious disease will never diminish. On the contrary, it is absolutely inevitable that something far worse will come around; a repeat of the Black Death, which tore through Europe and wiped out half of its inhabitants, young, old, healthy or otherwise.
This is not where we are. Crucially, we have a vaccine, and there is no evidence yet to suggest that any of the new variants are capable of beating it. Britain is well on our way to protecting all those at risk of dying from Covid-19 by spring, after which we in the remaining population are more likely to meet our end in a road accident. Any more of these brutal restrictions would be tantamount to banning cars.
But let’s follow the Government's latest line of reasoning for a moment. Suppose a virus mutation does occur in a far-off land that is capable of circumnavigating our current vaccines and rendering them, and our inoculation programme, obsolete. That would be bad. But it’s also an indefinite risk.
The only way to protect ourselves against the next variant would be to stay closed to all foreign arrivals forever; for the whole planet to shrink back down to a medieval peasant society. Australia and New Zealand might be smug now in their splendid isolation, but there’s only so long it can continue. Countries and families will eventually reunite. The world will still face risks, but at least we’ll be together.