AS OUR third national lockdown eases, there are siren voices calling for the process to be accelerated. Look at Israel, they say, where 61 per cent of citizens have received at least one Covid vaccine, and half the population have had their second jab. Infection rates have plummeted to the lowest level in nine months — despite the reopening of restaurants, bars, sport, and music venues.
Yet, there is a sobering counter-example. In Chile, more than one third of the population has been vaccinated, in one of the fastest rollouts in the world, just behind the UK — where half of us have now received our first vaccination. Chile, like the UK, received international plaudits for securing early deals with several vaccine-suppliers — yet Covid cases have doubled in a month.
Several factors explain the disparity, and they suggest that Britain is right to proceed with caution. Chile appears to have eased its lockdown too quickly. Churches, gyms, restaurants, bars, shopping malls, and casinos reopened in January. In February, Chileans were allowed, for the first time in months, to move around the country on holiday. Mobile-phone records show that the increase in movement was vast. Five million people criss-crossed the country, prompting a medical crisis as hospitals filled and intensive-care beds became scarce.
The other key factor was the appearance of new variants. In Chile, the high transmission rate appears to be caused by the arrival of more infectious variants from Brazil and Britain. In Israel, 80 per cent of new Covid cases are caused by the more infectious variant that first appeared in Kent. Last November and December, tens of thousands of Israelis flocked to Dubai on holiday. There, they caught the British variant brought to the Gulf state by British tourists. Israeli doctors say that national recovery would have been much quicker without that.
Holidaymakers are the most common vectors of deadly new variants. They routinely import foreign strains of Covid when they return home. British vaccinations are proving remarkably effective against our native strains. But we have not yet had to test how effective they might be against foreign variants.
That is one reason that it would be wise of the Government not to heed reckless calls from the Tory back benches to accelerate the lifting of the lockdown. It would be foolhardy to allow the British public to go back to taking holidays overseas, especially in Mediterranean countries now in the grip of a third wave of the pandemic. If the British were to holiday at home, that would also assist the recovery of the domestic economy.
All this raises a more profound issue. People talk of easing our way back to the new normal. But will that normal really be new? Or do people really just want to return to the old ways? The pandemic has made us forget about the biggest problem on our horizon: the fact that the earth is warming at an alarming rate. Air travel is a significant contributor to that. Surely, if we are to take seriously the Judaeo-Christian ideal of stewardship of the planet, it is time for a complete rethink of the idea of us all jetting abroad for a holiday every year.