A study suggesting a coronavirus variant originating in Spain now accounts for most UK cases has highlighted the weakness of the government’s travel policies over the summer, experts have said.
Research from scientists in Switzerland, which is yet to be peer-reviewed, has revealed that a new variant of coronavirus, known as 20A.EU1, appears to have cropped up in Spain during the summer and has since spread to multiple European countries, including the UK.
“In Wales and Scotland the variant was at 80% in mid-September, whereas frequencies in Switzerland and England were around 50% at that time,” the authors said.
The variant appeared in the UK in the middle of July when quarantine-free travel to Spain was allowed for England, Wales, and Northern Ireland. However, the new variant of the virus is now common in countries across Europe, meaning travellers to and from many countries could since have brought it back to the UK.
Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Dr Emma Hodcroft, an evolutionary geneticist at the University of Basel and lead author of the study, stressed there was no sign as yet that the strain was more dangerous that other variants, or that it would hamper the development of a vaccine. “It’s not very different from the variants that circulated in spring,” she said.
Earlier this year experts and members of the public alike raised a number of concerns around international travel, with reports of crowding at airports, a lack of quarantine information, and few checks on test-and-trace forms.
Prof Devi Sridhar, the chair of global public health at Edinburgh University, said there were flaws in the UK government’s approach to travel over the summer. “Numbers were really low and that was our chance to keep them low,” she said. “The virus moves when people move.”
Sridhar said there were two approaches to managing the virus when it came to travel: either keeping borders largely open, as occurred in the UK, but adopting harsh restrictions to try to combat community transmission; or having very tight border controls, as has been the case in Taiwan and New Zealand, but few restrictions on everyday life.
“I feel like in Europe we want it all, we want to be able to go on holiday, we want to have bars open, pubs open, clubs open – but with such an infectious virus and [the] associated hospitalisation rate, it is pretty much an impossible ask,” said Sridhar.
She said the seeding of infections by travellers not only kicked off the epidemic in the UK, but that reseeding by such means was likely to be a recurrent problem. “The biggest mistake actually that the world did early on was not to use travel restrictions more to control the spread – the countries that did have done better,” she said.
Prof John Edmunds of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine said the crucial issue at present was that there could be close to 100,000 new coronavirus infections every day in the UK – something he said was far more concerning than the number of cases imported from abroad.
Dr Michael Head, a senior research fellow in global health at the University of Southampton, said: “The UK, along with some European countries, have been very much reactive in the Covid-19 response rather than proactive. This has included reactive approaches around international travel, only implementing recommendations for quarantine of returning travellers when rates are high, rather than beforehand.”
And the outlook remains concerning. “With a poor quality test-and-trace system in place, low compliance from those in isolation, and low levels of trust in the government, the UK is poorly placed heading into the winter,” he said.