Surge in Delta variant cases is a stark reminder that the government’s border measures are unfit for purpose
It's imperative that the UK avoids repeating the mistakes of the past year. The Government must put the data and global reality of this virus before short-term political gain.
Boris Johnson has repeatedly promised to be guided by data, not dates. As all eyes turn to the 21st June and whether remaining restrictions are lifted, it is crucial that the Prime Minister stands by that pledge.
Key questions still remain over the Delta variant; how transmissible is it? How much protection is offered by existing vaccines? The decision over what measures should remain in place must be based on this latest data and scientific advice, not pressure to stick to an arbitrary date.
The example of Chile, which reopened too early and had to lock down again, should remind us that vaccination on its own is not a panacea and some social distancing measures may need to remain in place in the medium term.
Time and again we have seen what happens when the government bows to political pressure rather than following the science. The fateful decision to lock down too late in autumn and before Christmas ended up fuelling the pandemic instead of containing it.
Previous experience has also demonstrated that there isn’t a binary choice between keeping the coronavirus under control or allowing the economy to recover. The two can and must go hand in hand. It is far preferable to put measures in place early to suppress the virus, rather than allowing it to get out of control yet again resulting in longer lockdowns and more lives tragically lost.
The government ignored the warning signs, acted too slowly and allowed this new, highly-transmissible, variant to become dominant
The surge in cases of the Delta variant is a stark reminder that the government’s border measures remain unfit for purpose.
While the first case of this variant was identified in the UK on 1 April, it took another three weeks until India was put on the red list, during which time an estimated 20,000 travellers had arrived from there. The government ignored the warning signs, acted too slowly and allowed this new, highly-transmissible, variant to become dominant.
The APPG on Coronavirus, which I chair, last month called for countries to be added to the red list as soon as variants of concern are identified, and for quarantine rules to then come into force with immediate effect.
We also recommended urgent measures to reduce overcrowding at airports and prevent them becoming breeding ground for the virus. It is staggering that Heathrow only this week announced that it has received the government support needed to ensure travellers arriving from red list countries have a separate terminal, rather than waiting alongside those from green and amber list countries.
Even now, those arriving from red list countries who have transited via another destination are being allowed to mix with others, and airports are warning of lengthy queues as international travel reopens. The government must fix this gaping flaw in our defences against coronavirus immediately.
The continual rise of new variants is also a reminder that unless the virus is suppressed abroad, the public will not be safe at home. If we are to reopen society fully, immunity through vaccination is a global imperative, not a national one. This is why the APPG is urging the government to commit to donating one vaccine dose to low- and middle-income countries for each one that is administered in the UK, and to show global leadership on this issue ahead of the G7 summit.
The UK has ordered four times the number of doses than it needs for its own population. Meanwhile, in Africa less than two per cent of the continent's population has received a first dose of the vaccine. Closing this divide is both the right thing and the sensible thing to do. The pandemic will only end when we have achieved vaccine equity throughout the world.
As we approach the next phase of our response to the coronavirus pandemic, it's imperative that the UK avoids repeating the mistakes of the past year, and that the Prime Minister puts data, and the global reality of this virus, before short-term political gain.
The next few months could define so much of what happens next, and yet the government seems incapable of stepping up and providing the global leadership we need. Time is running out for them to listen to scrutiny, learn lessons and lead.
Layla Moran is the Liberal Democrat MP for Oxford West and Abingdon and chair of the APPG on Coronavirus.