Even Boris Johnson’s most vocal supporters would admit the government’s Covid travel policy, insofar as it has had one, has been wracked with inconsistencies, confusion and inaction. Dominic Cummings’ suggestion that Johnson outright refused to implement a coherent travel policy in the second half of last year appears to be painfully true when confronting the evidence.
Baffling policy omissions – like not testing anyone coming to the UK for 9 months after Covid hit – have been squeezed between disastrous decisions like letting people from Delta variant ravaged India enter the country with impunity in April. The result of this has quantifiably led to more Covid cases, more deaths and prolonged bouts of restrictions.
The latest iteration announced yesterday has been a breath of fresh in some senses as it allows those double-jabbed in the EU or US with UK approved vaccines to avoid quarantine when arriving on our shores. This matches the freedoms afforded to returning British residents from amber and green countries (all of the EU bar France) who have been double-jabbed and will provide a boost to the tourism and aviation sectors.
The decision to shed social distancing restrictions almost entirely means that a travel policy that restricts double-jabbed people from coming here without quarantine would have been untenable. The implicit assumption in the government’s Covid policy is that high case numbers can be tolerated, to a point, as those most at risk of serious illness are protected by the vaccine.
This strategy is dependent entirely on the proven efficacy of the vaccines, meaning that it would make little sense to bar fully vaccinated adults from overseas from getting on a plane to London. If we’re going to trust vaccines administered here to provide a carapace around the vulnerable, and get life back to normal, then we must also accept them when administered overseas.
However, the familiar pattern of inconsistencies and contradictions are still evident in some elements of the policy. One example is the status of fully vaccinated Hungarians.
Hungary is offering its citizens the Chinese produced Sinopharm jab – among others – as a part of its vaccine roll out, which has approval from neither the UK nor the EU’s respective medicines regulators. The vaccine has been shown in clinical trials to be less effective against stopping the spread of the virus and less effective against hospitalisation.
All this is problematic as the EU’s vaccine passport still allows Hungarians vaccinated with Sinopharm to use the app, despite it not being approved for use by the European Medicines Agency (EMA). There are few signs thus far that the UK will distinguish between Hungarians using the app after being jabbed with the unapproved vaccine and those who have taken Pfizer or Moderna for example.
When pushed about this issue by journalists today, a Downing Street spokesperson refused to give a straight answer and inspired little confidence that this issue would be resolved.
The decision to allow people from the US to come without a national form of a digital vaccine passport also looks undercooked. Americans will be able to show proof of vaccination at the UK border through a handwritten Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) card, which has been vulnerable to fraud.
Vaccine passports administered by state governments are also accepted, however many governors have outright refused to roll them out. The federal US government’s inability to produce a national vaccine passport for international travel should have consequences, particularly while British residents are still banned from the US.
In these two instances there is the familiar pattern from the government of overlooking vital and fixable flaws in its borders policy, which could have damaging consequences down the line. Let’s hope this time it doesn’t have the same conclusion as previous blunders.