Open borders: Chris Whitty on Covid-19 and international travel
Floris de Bruin explains Chris Whitty’s statement that regulating international border control in the long- term is an unsustainable option.
England’s chief medical adviser Chris Whitty has said that keeping borders closed and suspending international travel is not a sustainable way of keeping out variants of Covid-19. Instead, we must learn to live with the virus as we do with the flu.
As coronavirus restrictions ease, the R-value or ‘effective reproduction number’ is likely to rise above 1 as people come into frequent contact with one another. This provides the virus fertile breeding grounds to potentially mutate and spread which will become increasingly difficult to protect against.
Border policy, explained Professor Whitty during a Royal Medicine Society webinar, is driven by the assessment of which countries have the most variants. Countries impose restrictions to avoid importing dangerous strains of the virus that will harm their population.
“Living amongst deadly pathogens is an everyday reality”
“The UK is a net exporter of [the Kent] B117 variant, so other countries are understandably putting their border measures up against us to slow that down. We are a net importer of other variants that are a bit more of a worry from the vaccine point of view. That’s really what drives a lot of the policy, when it is being rational, excepting that border policy isn’t always fully rational,” he said.
The traffic light system provisionally due to come in May reflects this rationale. According to The Telegraph, “the Government has said it will consider infection rates, variants prevalence and access to genomic sequencing, as well as vaccination rate” when determining which countries are safe for Britons to travel to. Vaccine passports are also being considered to facilitate international travel as negotiations are underway between countries to agree on “mutual recognition” of these documents.
However, Whitty claimed that this is not a viable option for the future. He explained that the virus is here to stay and that it would, therefore, be unrealistic to continue heavily regulating international travel in what is essentially an unchanging situation.
In turn, Whitty pragmatically expressed the need to learn how to manage Covid-19 like how we manage the flu each year.
Influenza (flu) is a serious seasonal virus that attacks the respiratory system. Flu outbreaks happen every year and they vary in severity, where 20,000 to 25,000 lives are taken in a ‘bad’ year. The virus is controlled through flu vaccines and other preventative measures.
Living amongst deadly pathogens is an everyday reality. Looking at how society managed to adapt to the infectious flu gives reason to argue that something similar can be achieved with regards to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Whitty was quick to clarify, “It is not flu, it is a completely different disease, but the point I am making is, here is a seasonal, very dangerous disease that kills thousands of people every year and society has chosen a particular way around it.”
While a majority of experts agree that Covid-19 cannot be stopped, it can be slowed down to facilitate a ‘new normal’ which could render border restrictions a thing of the past.
Whitty explained how new vaccine technologies save effort and valuable time in tweaking vaccines to ensure optimal efficacy when dealing with Covid-19 variants. “A wide portfolio of vaccines is to be expected within the space of two or more years”, said Whitty.
“It is becoming apparent that this ‘new normal’ does not signify the infringement of personal liberties as it used to; rather, it signifies greater freedoms as we learn to live our lives alongside the virus.”
During the webinar, the discussion centered around the responsibility of pharmaceutical companies to boost vaccination supplies.
“What we have got to do is work out some balance which actually keeps [Covid] at a low level, minimises deaths as best we can but in a way that the population tolerates and do as much of the heavy lifting as we can by medical countermeasures,” Whitty said.
It is becoming apparent that this ‘new normal’ does not signify the infringement of personal liberties as it used to; rather, it signifies greater freedoms as we learn to live our lives alongside the virus.
By accepting Covid-19 as a mainstay and by relying on promising new vaccine technologies, a return to a less regulated (and less stressful) airport experience is in sight.