Politicians of all stripes are resorting to ugly tropes about Britain's porous borders
“They’ve already spent four hours cheek-by-jowl in presumably some great petri dish, potentially bringing in Lord-knows-what into our country”. This was a direct quote from former shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry on Sky News today, whose bigoted language seems to be worryingly reflective of the current Covid discourse. Once the preserve of fringe Right-wing groups, we are now seeing politicians of all stripes resorting to ugly tropes about people “surging” in through the UK’s “leaky” borders like “a sieve“.
Inevitably, this xenophobic rhetoric has started trickling down to the general public, with reports of people being “terrified” of contracting Covid simply by standing near those travelling from India. It seems we have reached a precipice.
But fears that the “Indian variant (is) taking root in the UK” and that the government has “allowed the new variant in” overlook some important details. For one, the benefits of border closures as a means to prevent the ‘Indian variant’ (B.1.617.2) from taking hold in the UK are, at best, debatable. It is worth noting that, according to the WHO, the variant is currently present in 31 countries, including Australia which, infamously, has some of the strictest border controls in the world (it recently announced that it would imprison anyone attempting to return from India or face a $66,000 fine).
Others attribute the comparatively higher number of cases of B.1.617.2 in the UK as an example of its ‘leaky borders’. But even this is an unfair assessment given that the UK has some of the most extensive genomics sequencing in the world — sharing nearly as many sequences to GSAID as the US. Britain finds more cases because it is in a position to do so. That’s why we also knew that the first case of B.1.617.2 was sequenced on the 18th March — long before any discussion of the ‘Indian’ variant had properly taken hold.
If the UK was to implement border closures and, like Australia, keep them shut until 2022, it could have a hugely detrimental impact. It will decimate the travel industry, split families apart, prevent people commuting for education or work, and maybe most significantly, prevent the UK from taking its place as a member of a global society. It is no wonder that the EU this week announced new guidance aimed at opening up its borders.
Considering that the evidence to date shows that vaccines are effective against B.1.617.2, this fixation on borders is misplaced. For as long as Covid exists, there will always be a risk of new variants reaching our shores. We must make peace with this fact, and as Chris Whitty has stated, learn to live with Covid. If we do not, Britain is at risk of getting left behind.