The Good and Bad of Being an Island in an Epidemic: Why We All Need a Global Vision.

Isle of Wight coastline photo by A Howse
Isle of Wight coastline photo by A Howse

The pros of being an island – the island opportunity

History has shown that geographically a country living on a landmass surrounded by sea borders is at an advantage when dealing with unwanted invaders. We have seen over the last year that this theory also applies to viral infections.

In nearly all cases Covid-19 can only travel easily between people coming into contact with each other and inadvertently spreading disease molecules. This is why it is still so important to protect each other with the wearing of face masks, hand washing and social distancing despite possibly having recently received a coronavirus vaccine.

In our previous HotEnough article ‘Why Boris Johnson Says No to Tightening UK Borders To Prevent Covid-19 Spreading’ we focused on the balancing act that the UK’s Prime Minister and his top team are juggling. This strategy aims to keep trade and commerce flowing but also to limit as many new cases and variants of coronavirus as possible from entering the country.

Fortunately today the vaccination programme is going to plan and relatively speaking the number of people who are currently sick with Covid-19 in NHS hospitals is the lowest number seen for many months.

The Prime Minister and his advisers have delivered the vaccine rollout and the government’s strategy is to use the immunity achieved to slowly lift the restrictions with travel possible from 17th May and all the restrictions lifted by the 21st June, if all the key tests are met. These test factors include ensuring NHS hospital admissions are manageable and the vaccine rollout continues successfully. It is important that the vaccines the population have been given continue to show resistance to any new variants.

Linda Geddes at The Guardian argues that Britain’s island nation status could facilitate tighter border controls that would eradicate the virus so lockdown restrictions can be fully eased. She points out that New Zealand closed their borders and were able to use contact tracing on relatively few cases in addition to screening, testing and quarantine measures. This ensured that in 2020 New Zealanders could not travel but “enjoyed a year nearly completely free from restrictions” This is a huge contrast compared to the UK and other countries in Europe where travelling even a short distance and seeing close family who live nearby has been on a strictly limited basis during lockdown. (1)

Labour has called for tougher measures to prevent multiple cases of new variants entering the country simultaneously. There is then a difficult task in finding sick and non-symptomatic virus carrying travellers who can be hard to track. “Speaking during Prime Minister’s Questions, Sir Keir Starma said government scientists had recommended “a complete pre-emptive closure of borders.”

Australia like Hong Kong and Taiwan closed their borders to nearly all travellers early. The BBC reported at the end of January that the Australian continent had only had 28,750 positive cases of Covid-19 during the entire pandemic. (2)

Dr Sarah Jarvis spoke on the ITV lunchtime news to say that “the UK should have shut its borders earlier in the pandemic when cases were lower in Britain than elsewhere.” (3)

The cons of being an island

Being an island means we nearly always need to cross a large expanse of water to visit our neighbours or import and export goods and services. This is why we built the channel tunnel and why the conservatives are loath to ‘batten down the hatches’ and cut us off from keeping the transport of resources between the UK and Europe and beyond flowing freely. Keeping the public safe from any unwanted new variants is one big challenge. Making sure there is food in the shops and that businesses can continue to provide jobs for UK citizens is another critical goal that has been faced by Westminster.

However sadly the UK has experienced the loss of more than 150,000 lives in one of the highest death rates in the world due to this awful disease. We know that the government did not close the borders in the UK last spring and this led to many incidents of the contagion arriving all over Great Britain and Northern Ireland in the first half of 2020. At the time ministers said that this was because they still wanted British nationals to be able to travel home easily. The opposition leader’s view is that the current Tony policy is great for the economy but insufficient when it comes to stopping virus transmission into the UK.

Emily Morgan from ITV asked Mr Johnson this evening why have “tens of thousands of people have travelled between India and the UK over the last few weeks?” and asked why the country was not put on the red list sooner. The Prime Minister replied that India’s coronavirus type is “a variant under investigation” but not “a variant of concern”.  “We have countries under constant review” and “the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) recommends countries are put on the red or green list.” advised Boris Johnson from his new Press Conference studio.

London is widely held as being the best and most multicultural city in the world. This melting pot of cultures is a strong asset in ‘normal’ times and contributes to the world renowned film, arts and financial, medical, educational and technological industries that can be found in the British Isles. Unfortunately this international aspect is a disadvantage when it comes to a pandemic.

The UK aviation industry is really important to the economy and provides hundreds of thousands of jobs. Airports are vital for visitors from all over the globe and the UK is a hub for many travellers transiting between America and Europe, Asia and many more places across the globe. This popularity is also an ‘achilles heel’ as it makes our main airports such a popular destination that any contagious disease is bound to be able to spread around all the busy aircraft and airport environments and then onto public transport.

Why we need a global vision

Today the BBC reported a desperate situation in the hospitals in Delhi and other cities in India. The Indian national health services are currently overrun and running out of oxygen supplies despite the Indian’s government’s best efforts and with support from the army. It is tragic for all those involved in this brutal second wave of the virus, which is spreading in Asia at the moment.

These events illustrate the importance of vaccinating everyone in the world as quickly as possible. We live in an interconnected modern world where travel is part of work life for people of all nationalities. This virus doesn’t discriminate against those from richer and poorer countries or from any religion or political ideology. Several first world leaders are representing their citizens’ wishes with their plans to vaccinate their populations first and then share any left over medical supplies with their poorer neighbours.

This week Ursula von der Leyen directed that “(Oxford) Astra Zeneca must honour its contract with the European Union before exporting to the UK and the rest of the world.” (4) This is despite the normal practice of companies supplying their customers in the order they purchased them and the Europeans placing their orders many weeks after the UK’s decisive decision last year to order millions of vaccines from the Oxford Asta Zeneca partnership swiftly, to protect their citizens.

At the G7 summit in February Boris Johnson pledged to donate most of the Uk’s surplus vaccine to poorer countries after 400 million doses were ordered. If the suppliers fulfill all the requests correctly there will be too many for the population of Great Britain and Northern Ireland at this time. (6)  At the conference the British Prime Minister stated: “We’ve got to make sure the whole world is vaccinated because this is a global pandemic and it’s no use one country being far ahead of another, we’ve got to move together.” (5)

Achieving a Global Rollout

Many world leaders have made sure that they have purchased more than double what their residents actually need to achieve herd immunity. This is because they have foreseen that due to the nature of global supply chains that there may be delays and cancellations along the way as problems are encountered with materials and other elements of the manufacturing and distribution process. Hopefully this means that over the coming months and years that everyone who needs a jab will receive one but there is still criticism that rich nations are not doing enough.

The Covax scheme was set up by the World Health Organisation (WHO), the Global Vaccine Alliance (Gavi) and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (Cepi) to provide an equitable vaccine programme to all countries regardless of their wealth status. 300 countries are included in the project to prevent the spread of Covid-19 which has so far shipped 40.5 million vaccines to 118 participants. (6)

Our ability as humans to collaborate and support each other in positive ways has been seen in impressive political alliances, sports and music competitions and events over the centuries. Developments in technology, education, engineering safety and medicine have been progressively improving the standard of living for generations. Winning the battle against the virus in the long term will involve those in charge of strong economies all across the world, giving these precious life saving inoculations to people living in other areas and cultures all over the planet, who do not have the power to buy what they need themselves.

(1) ‘Covid: could Britain have been more like New Zealand?’ Linda Geddes, The Guardian, 5 Feb 2021 ‘Covid: could Britain have been more like New Zealand?’ Linda Geddes, The Guardian

(2) ‘Hotel quarantine for UK arrivals to be discussed.’ 22 January 2021, BBC News ‘Hotel quarantine for UK arrivals to be discussed.’ BBC News

(3) ‘Covid: Speculation growing UK could shut borders in bid to stop spread of new coronavirus variants’ ITV News, 5 January 2021 ‘Covid: Speculation growing UK could shut borders in bid to stop spread of new coronavirus variants’ ITV News

(4) ‘Covid-19: Europe wants it’s ‘fair share’ of the vaccine’ BBC News, 25 March 2021 ‘Covid-19: Europe wants it’s ‘fair share’ of the vaccine’ BBC News

(5) ‘Covid vaccines: Boris johnson pledges surplus to poorer countries at G7’ BBC News 19 February 2021  ‘Covid vaccines: Boris johnson pledges surplus to poorer countries at G7’ BBC News

(6) ‘Covax vaccine rollout’ Gavi, The Vaccine Alliance, 20 April 2021 Covax vaccine rollout’ Gavi, The Vaccine Alliance