Travel bans will do nothing to stop spread of omicron in UK, scientist warns

Pre-departure tests ‘closing stable door after horse has bolted’, says expert

Andrew Woodcock
Political Editor
Sunday 05 December 2021 20:06
Sage professor says omicron precautions 'shutting stable door after horse has bolted'

Travel bans and pre-departure tests will do nothing to stop the spread of omicron to the UK, according to a leading scientist from South Africa, one of the countries where the new variant of coronavirus was first detected.

And a member of the government’s Sage scientific advisory board said that measures announced on Saturday by Sajid Javid, which are set to be imposed at 4am on Tuesday, were “shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted”.

Community transmission is already under way in the UK, and can be expected to “drive the next wave” and see cases rise from hundreds to thousands regardless of travel restrictions, said epidemiologist Professor Mark Woolhouse of the University of Edinburgh.

The director of the Africa Health Research Institute, Professor Willem Hanekom, told BBC One’s Andrew Marr Show that he was “completely aligned” with the view of many South Africans that the rest of the world was panicking unnecessarily about the emergence of the omicron variant, which is believed to be more contagious than previous strains of Covid-19.

Prof Hanekom said: “The travel bans are doing are going to do very, very little to stop the spread of omicron. In fact, our experience is exactly the opposite. They’re not going to do anything to stop the spread of omicron.

“But in a country like South Africa, which is a middle-income country, the amount that we are losing economically from travel bans is just astronomical, and we really cannot afford that.”

Prof Hanekom said that controls on travel should not be the priority for UK authorities in dealing with the new variant.

“This is not really where the focus should be to ultimately control the epidemic within the UK,” he said. “I don’t want to speak for the UK, but I think that other measures may have to be put into place if you want to control omicron in your country.”

Asked whether the health secretary was right to require all travellers aged 12 or over to take a PCR or lateral flow test before coming to the UK from any country in the world, Prof Woolhouse told Andrew Marr: “I think that may be a case of shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted.

“If omicron is here in the UK – and it certainly is; and if there’s community transmission in the UK – and it certainly looks that way – then it’s that community transmission that will drive the next wave.

“The cases that are being imported are important. We want to detect those and isolate any positive cases that we find, as we would for any case anywhere. But I think it’s too late to make a material difference to the course of the omicron wave, if we’re going to have one.”

Prof Woolhouse said that although the numbers of people with the omicron variant in the UK are “still quite small” and probably remain in the hundreds for now rather than the thousands, they are “growing quite fast”.

However, he insisted that vaccinations will still be “very, very good” at protecting against the new variant.

Statistician Professor Sir David Spiegelhalter told Sky News’s Trevor Phillips On Sunday programme: “It’s a very difficult situation because we haven’t got a lot of data yet at all, almost nothing from this country about what the risks are.

“In South Africa there’s data coming out showing pretty strong evidence that [there is an] increased risk of transmission, and some evidence about people going to hospital … it may actually be milder, but we haven’t got enough data yet to be able to say.”

“It doesn’t look as if it’s really severe if you get it; I think that’s about all we can say at the moment.”

Asked if measures to combat the spread of omicron have gone far enough, Prof Spiegelhalter added: “It’s best to be precautionary, when there’s so much we don’t know … and when we don’t know it’s better to be safe than sorry.”

The travel industry has reacted with fury to the travel bans on 11 African countries – which will include Nigeria from Monday morning – despite ministers insisting they are only “temporary”.

Deputy prime minister Dominic Raab told Sky: “I know that is a burden for the travel industry but we have made huge, huge strides in this country.

“We have got to take the measures targeted forensically to stop the new variant seeding in this country to create a bigger problem. We have taken a balanced approach but we are always alert to extra risk that takes us back, not forward.”

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