The underlying idea that politicians can control viruses was never true
The headlines in yesterday’s papers, claiming that ministers were going to resist Covid curbs on Chinese travellers coming to Britain, could mean only one thing. Sure enough, a few hours later the U-turn was leaked and then formally announced: travel restrictions for Covid are back.
Some of those pushing for pre-departure testing have suggested it will stop the impact of high infection rates among Chinese travellers contributing to a faster spread of the virus in the UK. The Government has argued that this is a “temporary, precautionary” measure that will help protect the country against potential new variants. But does the evidence actually exist to justify such claims?
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In the context of the UK, which is currently experiencing a high (though now decreasing) level of infections and where a large proportion of the population now has some kind of immunity, it is difficult to argue that screening travellers from one specific country will have any clear impact on spread. In the context of the milder Omicron variant and a highly vaccinated population, it is even harder to sustain the claim that the measures will reduce Covid-related hospitalisations or mortality.
Really, we now have high-quality, peer-reviewed evidence on the impact of travel restrictions. Research published earlier this year in Frontiers in Public Health examined the causal impact of a range of different non-pharmaceutical interventions across 169 countries. It found no statistically significant effects of international travel restrictions either on mortality or on infections. This finding held true in both the short and long term, early in the pandemic and later, and even when international travel restrictions were combined with stay-at-home measures or business closures.
When it comes to new variants, real world data has repeatedly demonstrated the lack of effectiveness of travel restrictions. Having some of the toughest border restrictions in the world was not enough to stop the Delta variant spreading to Australia in 2021. Undeterred, in November of that year the UK Government brought in stringent restrictions for travellers from six African countries, specifically to prevent the spread of the new Omicron variant. We know how well that worked out.
The Government must be aware of the lack of evidence for any benefit from travel restrictions. It appears they are paying more attention to the results of opinion polls than peer-reviewed research and scientific data.
And, as with all interventions, the new restrictions will not be cost-free. The Government statement announcing them acknowledges the costs to the travel industry, but makes no attempt to balance these drawbacks against the very limited potential benefits.
The cost is not only about travel from China. The Government has reintroduced an atmosphere of uncertainty, which has the potential to affect the travel and tourism industry as a whole. If pre-departure testing is right for China, then why not Japan, Hong Kong or South Korea, where cases are at record levels? And any time a new variant appears in a country, the industry must now factor in the possibility that further restrictions will follow. Indeed, influential voices have already suggested that the only effective measure would be the reintroduction of pre-departure testing for all travellers, regardless of which country they are travelling from.
Worse, by folding so quickly and easily, Rishi Sunak has sent out a worrying signal to the Covid restriction evangelists. When we see another big outbreak or new variant in the UK, we can expect a torrent of lobbying for useless mask mandates and other evidence-free restrictions. Sadly, we can have little confidence that the Government has the backbone to resist.
The mistaken conceit of global Covid policy over the past three years was that politicians have the power to control the virus with so-called “interventions”. It was never true. We have had lockdowns, business closures, tiers, masks and vaccines, and every single one has proved ineffective against the virus. Since early 2022, it has appeared that the UK Government had at least learnt its lesson. The new travel restrictions for China suggest a depressing return to the failed policies of the past.
David Paton is Professor of Industrial Economics at Nottingham University Business School