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Time to wall ourselves off as China did? UK’s ineffective border control is weakest link in fight against Covid-19

Jonathan Arnott
Jonathan Arnott

is a former British member of the European Parliament. He is now a writer, publisher, and political consultant who has authored books on Brexit and chess. His fields of expertise include education and finance. Follow him on Twitter @JonathanArnott

is a former British member of the European Parliament. He is now a writer, publisher, and political consultant who has authored books on Brexit and chess. His fields of expertise include education and finance. Follow him on Twitter @JonathanArnott

Time to wall ourselves off as China did? UK’s ineffective border control is weakest link in fight against Covid-19
Whilst China’s draconian measures, harshly criticized by the western media, are beating the coronavirus, Britain is importing it. We can’t possibly hope to defeat the virus with insecure borders.

My flight landed back in the UK last week from Iceland – just in time to avoid any serious risk of contracting the Covid-19 virus. Passport control was as chaotic as anyone could possibly imagine. Passengers returning on flights from various countries all came together into the same hall; there must have been a thousand or so people queueing in the same hall, all breathing the same air, some coughing and spluttering.

I count myself as one of the lucky ones. By sheer chance, the other flights arriving at the same time weren’t from infected areas either. Still, by any reasonable definition, standing in a tightly packed queue snaking back and forth throughout a huge room, I must have had so-called ‘close contact’ with travellers from a number of different countries. I’ve checked with other people and they’ve had the same experience – except their flights were merged with people coming into the UK from Italy, where the outbreak was completely out of control. Not only are we importing the virus into the country, we’re also giving it an opportunity to spread within minutes of it getting here.

Also on rt.com Coronavirus death toll in Italy jumps to 631 from 463 in a day, 10,000+ cases throughout the country

When regions and now entire nations are being quarantined, you’d think it would be sensible to take a few basic precautions to prevent the virus spreading right at the point of entry into the country. It’s not exactly logistical rocket science, when passenger numbers are low anyway, to deal with passport control one plane at a time and minimise crowds.

Last night, after the entire nation of Italy was placed under lockdown, flights were still taking off from Milan and Rome headed for the United Kingdom. Airlines have been forced by the European Commission’s ’80:20 rule’ to do their utmost to continue flying for fear of losing their historic rights to allocated slots.

The whole thing is madness. Don’t get me wrong, I think the UK government has actually done a better job than I would expect in terms of managing the spread of the virus within the UK – but unless we fix our border issues (and if only we could backdate that to last week), we’re just inviting the spread of the epidemic. Insisting that anyone coming to the UK from Italy must self-isolate for 14 days just doesn’t cut it. They might have already passed the virus on before they’ve left the airport thanks to incompetent organisation of aviation, and there’s no mechanism by which we’re able to enforce that self-isolation. Some people will simply ignore the occasional signs offering advice to travellers. Others won’t even know that they’re expected to self-isolate.

The strategy for bringing the Covid-19 virus under control is fairly straightforward. Firstly, find out who has the virus. We know that the UK and some other European nations are doing that reasonably well. Whilst the USA has tested five people in every million for Covid-19, the UK has tested 347 in every million. When a nation doesn’t know who has the virus, there’s a surefire sign: the proportion of deaths is far too high. When Iran had a mortality rate of over 20%, it was a clear sign that mild and moderate cases were going undetected – and that it was out of control. In the USA, Washington State saw the same problem.

Also on rt.com Two British Airways baggage handlers test positive for Covid-19 virus, sent home to self-isolate

Secondly, we need to make sure that anyone who has been in close contact with someone with Covid-19 is isolated: if they’re at home, they can’t infect anyone else. The UK government seems to be doing a reasonable job of this, and there is mathematical modelling to suggest that this step alone could control the outbreak if we weren’t importing more cases from overseas. China brought their outbreak under control through aggressive contact tracing, strict quarantines, and introducing stringent border controls to ensure they weren’t getting the virus back from other countries. 

None of it really matters if we continue to import the virus from seriously affected areas. It’s likely that the initial containment could, by now, already be doomed to failure throughout most of Europe; there might be simply too many people to trace. That’s when other social distancing policies are needed to slow the spread of the virus. A virus doesn’t care about political correctness. Whether a measure is authoritarian or not really isn’t the issue. The question is what works.

At the start of the outbreak, there was a flurry of criticism over China’s decision to quarantine people in Hubei province and insist – with force if necessary – that people must stay at home. The situation in Wuhan City was not pretty. Makeshift hospitals were built in a matter of days. Those showing symptoms went to dedicated quarantine centres. The international community howled with outrage. Yet in China, the epicentre of the outbreak, there were just 19 new cases recorded yesterday. Wuhan paid a heavy price, but China is on the cusp of beating the disease. China’s response was far from perfect (as their government has admitted), but they had no time to prepare. Europe has had two months’ notice. Criticise China’s response all you like, but it’s winning the war on Covid-19. 

Also on rt.com Western media excoriates China over coronavirus response, even as infected numbers drop & hospitals close

There is no such criticism over Italy’s decision to place the entire country on lockdown. Tough action might be inconvenient, but ultimately we must do what science dictates at the right time in order to save lives. In the time it’s taken me to write this article, more commercial flights have touched down in the UK from Italy. British Airways has belatedly cancelled all Italian flights, but others have not. Should our government not already have taken that decision out of their hands?

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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.

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