Paul Charles, CEO of travel PR consultancy The PC Agency and spokesperson for campaign group Quash Quarantine, describes what the UK government considers when making a decision
Few of us in the travel industry had heard about the european center for disease prevention and control just a few weeks ago. The ECDC, ironically based in Sweden, is an agency of the European Union that aims to strengthen Europe’s defenses against infectious diseases.
Yet this hitherto little-known agency now plays a pivotal role in determining the path of the next countries to be added to, or even removed from, the UK government’s quarantine list, such as Malaysia. and Brunei from Tuesday.
Every day, the ECDC releases the latest grim global data on the number of coronavirus cases and deaths by country. From Aruba to Bolivia, Croatia to Israel, Mexico to Pakistan, the numbers tell the story of the daily march of Covid-19 around the world.
And this is one statistic in particular that is being watched more closely by Public Health England and the Joint Biosecurity Center; this is the cumulative number, over seven days, of Covid-19 cases per 100,000 inhabitants.
It was this statistic that first raised worrying alarm bells in Whitehall about the sudden spike in Covid cases in Spain. In the week leading up to July 25, when the quarantine for anyone returning to the UK from Spain was announced, the number of cases per 100,000 people rose from 20 to 39, an increase of 90 % of infection rate. This morning that number jumped to 89 – an indication whether there was any need to know why the government moved so quickly to target Spain.
To put this in context, South Africa has an appallingly high case rate of over 200.
While some other criteria are measured and monitored by Professor Chris Whitty and his team, and Cabinet ministers including Transport Secretary Grant Shapps and Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, such as health infrastructure in a country and the history of medical authorities in the field, it is the number of cases per 100,000 that now counts.
That’s why all the talk of the next country to put on the government’s quarantine list is France. Last week, its number of cases per 100,000 rose from 17 (higher than the UK’s at 14) to 26, a jump of 50%.
I know from high-level government sources that anything over 20 per 100,000 for a period of seven days or more will likely result in that country being added to the quarantine list.
Based on that, France has just two days to get its numbers below 20 – which is highly unlikely as face masks are now mandatory in many outdoor public spaces, not just inside stores. So when the UK government next reviews the countries and its quarantine policy, scheduled for Thursday (but an announcement could come sooner), France looks likely to be added, with 30 hours’ notice.
Other European countries are set to be added later this week as well – the Netherlands, Switzerland, Poland and Malta in particular.
Rates in Portugal and Sweden remain stubbornly high, which means those two countries are unlikely to see the quarantine relaxed long before the end of August, dashing hopes of a late summer season.
All of this means that more and more countries will very soon face the quarantine quagmire. There will be fewer tourists, who have been put off by the idea of having to quarantine for 14 days on their return and, as a result, a drop in tourism spending in their savings. Not to mention the impact on the UK economy of discouraging visitors to our country.
Which begs the question of why, if we are to learn to live with the coronavirus, there is not more effort being put into testing, testing and more testing? Temperature checks and swab / saliva testing at our airports upon arrival, as well as world class testing and tracing. Combine all of these together and you have a fairly efficient medical system, but one that has less of a financial impact as you don’t need to quarantine everyone visiting the UK from a high risk country.
Like the ECDC, the UK needs to focus more on strengthening its defenses against these infectious diseases. Then the blunt quarantine instrument can be cast aside, hopefully forever.