LOOKING back over the coronavirus crisis, what stands out is the professionalism, commitment and sheer courage of our medical and care staff on the front line.
That is why I believe we should take every possible step to prevent any additional and avoidable burdens on the health service. One of those is the inflow of visitors from overseas, some from countries with higher rates of the virus, others from countries where statistics are deeply unreliable.
Meanwhile, the tourist industry is close to collapse. We need to be ready to make a start on reviving it but we must do so in a way that does not add still more to the burdens on the National Health Service.
The issue of arrivals from overseas arose just a few weeks into the crisis. A study by Southampton University (reported by The Sunday Times over the past weekend) has since revealed that 190,000 people flew into the UK from Wuhan and other high-risk Chinese cities between January and March. That research has estimated that up to 1,900 of these passengers would have been infected by the virus.
However, the British government declined to take any action other than to distribute a leaflet to those arriving and make accommodation available near airports for those who wished to self-quarantine. They said that their response was based on scientific advice that testing all arrivals would not be effective as the test available at the time was not accurate so that much effort would be wasted trying to trace the contacts of arrivals who were not, in fact, carrying the virus.
The time has now come to review foreign access to the UK unless and until a vaccine becomes available, and until we have the means to check that visitors have a vaccination certificate before they arrive at our airports.
Few people are aware that 48 nationalities from so-called non-visa countries can pitch up at our borders and be given leave to enter for up to six months. As those countries include the US, Japan, Argentina, Brazil and Mexico, we are talking about a total population of just over one billion.
They accounted for about 70 per cent of more than 13million annual non-EU visitor admissions over the past couple of years (or nearly ten million per year).
If we are to have any control over the inflow of tourists and visitors the first step must be to suspend this ‘non visa’ regime (try getting into the US without a visa now). That would give us some options before millions of passengers arrive on our doorstep.
At the same time, we should be thinking about how, in due course, we might be able to resuscitate our tourist industry. The key, however, must be to do it in a way that does not add even more to the pressures on the health and care sectors.
One characteristic of this dreadful virus is that it is much less harmful for younger people. Government scientists believe that, in Britain, the chance of someone under fifty needing hospital treatment for the Coronavirus is less than 5 per cent. For those in their fifties this doubles to 10 per cent, rising to nearly 25 per cent for those in their seventies.
Of course, tourists and visitors are usually here for only a few weeks but the virus strikes suddenly. In a matter of days someone can be feeling very unwell and in a few more days she, or more often he, might need hospital treatment.
This means that there is a clear risk from tourists and this is why we are recommending that the government should first impose a visa requirement on all visitors. It would then be possible to grant visas in a streamlined fashion to those under fifty, while older applicants should, for as long as this emergency lasts and at least until a vaccine is available, be granted a visa only if there are special circumstances.
At a very rough estimate some four million visitors from non-European countries each year have been aged over 50. Taken together therefore, the additional burden on the health service could be considerable.
There will be opposition to our proposal but this dangerous virus has transformed the situation. We surely have a clear responsibility to do everything possible not only to minimise the risks to those in the UK but also to ease the workload on our brave front line, healthcare staff and key workers.