This has been a long Covid winter and all of us have been looking forward to tomorrow as things start to open up further. But that is why it is so frustrating that we now have a shadow cast over the latest lifting of restrictions by the spread of a new variant from India that the government could have avoided or slowed down.
This wasn’t inevitable. Time and again we have seen similar mistakes and delays in acting on Covid-19 at the border. Lessons must be learned or it will happen all over again.
India should have been added to the red list in early April at the same time as Pakistan and Bangladesh – Covid rates there were already higher and steeply rising, and concern was already growing about a group of new variants. In the following three weeks, thousands of people travelled back from India and more cases of a new variant arrived in the UK.
This isn’t good enough. Throughout a tough winter, the British people have done their bit. People locked down, families stayed at home and businesses shut up shop. We stopped hugging, gave up Christmas, and we’ve been out in droves to support the vaccine programme. But we needed the government in return to be vigilant against new variants to make sure that those sacrifices weren’t undermined.
The likeliest explanation this time round is that the government wanted to wait until the last possible minute before cancelling Prime Minister Boris Johnson's trip to India. But as we know with Covid, delaying difficult decisions makes them worse.
In mid March last year we had no Covid border restrictions in place at all at a time when up to 10,000 Covid cases arrived in the UK, accelerating the first wave of the pandemic. Lessons weren’t learnt. Over the summer, border restrictions chopped and changed but there was no border testing and no proper enforcement of home quarantine.
Overseas cases contributed to the September surge. Then over the winter, as the challenge became preventing new variants destabilising the vital vaccine programme, the government was still slow to act on the South Africa and Brazil variants.
We all desperately hope that this latest variant will stay under control, that the vaccine will remain effective and will be rolled out fast enough, and that we can keep opening up on track. But the risk of new variants isn’t going away, and we need a better approach to borders.
First, we need a much faster system in place to respond both to new variants and to rapidly rising cases while the vaccine programme is still being rolled out. There is still no transparency on how country-by-country decisions are taken or what criteria is being used. The Joint Biosecurity Centre should publish weekly assessments of countries including both case rates and new variant risks, and ministers need to be ready to act fast on a precautionary basis when new threats emerge rather than waiting for weeks.
Second, we have to improve the border testing and home quarantine system if the traffic light system is going to work. There are still too many exemptions from the testing regime (currently short stay hauliers don’t even have to take a lateral flow test), people can still travel home on public transport with no testing at the airport on arrival and there is still too little enforcement when home quarantine rules are breached. That should change, learning lessons from places like South Korea.
Third, the government must provide direct support to the aviation and travel industries to ease the pressures they are under, while we take a more cautious approach to the pace of opening up international travel as the vaccine programme is rolled out, so we can keep lifting restrictions at home.
After a difficult year we must keep the vaccine programme on track and keep making steady progress towards getting back to normal. We cannot afford for the government to repeat the same mistakes all over again.
Yvette Cooper is chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee and a former shadow home secretary. She is the Labour MP for Normanton, Pontefract & Castleford