After a disastrous pandemic response that led to one of the worst death rates in the world, the UK’s vaccination programme is finally giving it something to be cheerful about. The UK bought early and broadly, prioritising speed and betting that – although it did not yet know which vaccines would work – at least some would make the cut. These early investments made it possible for vaccine manufacturers to invest in more production capacity early on.
In contrast, the EU was slow, prioritised cost reductions, refused to waive liability for vaccine firms if something went wrong, and focused on a smaller number of vaccines – some of which, like France’s Sanofi vaccines, have suffered setbacks.
Even once the UK reaches herd immunity through vaccinations, a vaccine-resistant variant would bring it back to square one
At the time of writing, for every 100 people, 14 vaccine doses had been administered in the UK. In Ireland, only four doses per 100 people had been administered; in France, only two per 100 had been. At its current pace, the UK may have vaccinated most of its adult population by the late spring – well ahead of Ireland, the rest of the EU and most of the rest of the world.
But this success will be short-lived if a vaccine-resistant variant of the coronavirus emerges somewhere in the world. Even once the UK reaches herd immunity through vaccinations, a vaccine-resistant variant would bring it back to square one. Ireland faces the exact same danger.
The short-term solution to this, for both countries, may be to tightly control borders, requiring that all inbound travellers are quarantined under supervision at hotels. This has been the policy of countries like Australia, New Zealand and Taiwan since the start of the pandemic. After those countries were able to eliminate their outbreaks, these quarantines have allowed them to return to relative normal, while the pandemic has gone on across the rest of the world.
But both Ireland and the UK will have a mutual weak spot in the form of the Northern Irish Border and the Common Travel Area more generally. This will be very difficult to shut for more than a very short period of time – if at all. And if a vaccine-resistant variant enters one country, it will be very difficult to avoid it spreading to the other.
This means that there can be no going it alone for either country. A two-island border quarantine policy, with a jointly agreed policy on quarantines for travellers entering from outside the two countries, could protect against new variants entering from overseas.
But there is an extra risk for the UK while Ireland is still unvaccinated: a new, vaccine-resistant variant could enter it from overseas without being noticed until it has spread to the UK and taken hold there, too. So it is in the interests of the UK for Ireland to reach herd immunity through vaccinations as quickly as possible.
To achieve this, the British government may wish to consider sharing vaccines with Ireland as urgently as possible, probably once it has finished vaccinating adults resident in the UK who are over 50. This could be done without significantly slowing down the UK’s progress towards herd immunity, given Ireland’s relatively small population.
After a fractious four years, many in Britain are eager to show goodwill and demonstrate that they aim to be a good neighbour to Europe
Once this is done, the UK and Ireland may be able to get back to business as usual, at the cost of quarantines for travellers entering from the rest of the world. This would allow travel between the two countries to resume, emulating the trans-Tasman travel bubble between Australia and New Zealand. Families could be safely reunited, and the tourism industries of both countries could get a much-needed boost. There are 380,000 Irish nationals in the UK and 100,000 British nationals in Ireland. Many of us have not seen home since the pandemic began.
‘Common Immunity Area’
This “Common Immunity Area” would not be a permanent solution to the risk of vaccine-resistant variants, of course. One exit strategy is to develop capacity to design and deploy vaccines against new variants as quickly as they arise. mRNA vaccines can be redesigned in a few days and medical regulators have indicated that they will not require new phase-three trials before they are rolled out. The UK is currently building a factory to allow it to manufacture new vaccines rapidly.
The second exit strategy is to expand the “Common Immunity Area” to other countries that have reached herd immunity and introduced quarantines for inbound travellers. But the only permanent solution is to eliminate Covid worldwide, so new variants cannot emerge in the first place. Johnson&Johnson’s one-dose vaccine may help to make this feasible.
None of this is a rejection of Europe, however clumsily it has handled vaccine procurement and, last week, the Irish Border. Rather, it is a recognition of reality. Northern Ireland and the Border make special co-operation between Ireland and the UK essential.
After a fractious four years, many in Britain are eager to show goodwill and demonstrate that they aim to be a good neighbour to Europe after being, at times, a difficult tenant. Ireland would have to overlook some of the distrust the UK has engendered during the Brexit process. But the reward for both would be a return to normal and insurance against the worst-case scenario of a new variant emerging. Unless we are willing to risk another year of deaths, illnesses and lockdowns, co-operation is our best option.