The UK’s new coronavirus strain is already having a global impact

Unhappy holidays.
Unhappy holidays.
Image: Reuters/Toby Melville
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A week before Christmas, Britain found itself in an unholy mess.

On Friday (Dec. 18), scientists presented the UK government with stark data on a new, even more contagious variant of the coronavirus that had earlier been discovered in London and surrounding areas in England’s south east.

It’s 70% more transmissible than earlier variants, experts believe, and responsible for most new cases of Covid-19 in the region. It’s not yet thought to be more deadly or resistant to vaccines, but it’s “out of control,” according to the UK health secretary Matt Hancock. The variant has already been identified in other countries, including Denmark and Australia.

Crowds wait at Heathrow Airport after a flight to Dublin is cancelled over fears about the new coronavirus strain.
Crowds wait at Heathrow Airport after a flight to Dublin is cancelled over fears about the new coronavirus strain.
Image: Reuters/Twitter/Gavmulhern

The next day, prime minister Boris Johnson announced severe new restrictions for multiple regions across the country, including London, and canceled the controversial five-day break from existing curbs over the Christmas holiday. The reversal, much criticized for coming at such a late stage, resulted in chaotic scenes at railway stations as crowds of people tried to leave London before the midnight deadline.

Neighboring regions and countries reacted swiftly. The EU has imposed a complete ban on travel to and from the UK, until midnight tomorrow (Dec. 22). Scotland has extra police patrolling its border with England to prevent people traveling there for no good reason. Several other countries, such as Hong Kong, Canada, and Saudi Arabia, also closed their borders to travelers from the UK. Most worrying is the 48-hour ban imposed by France from Sunday, which means that trucks containing food and essential goods can’t get in or out of the UK.

The UK government isn’t even completely focused on this crisis. With the end of the Brexit transition period in 10 days, and still no trade deal with the EU, its biggest market, negotiations that could determine a generational economic relationship between Britain and Europe must somehow continue.

This is all set against a backdrop of failure. The UK’s test-and-trace system was late, expensive, and not entirely effective. There have been shortages of tests. Borders were never effectively sealed or managed, with largely voluntary quarantine arrangements in place for travelers.

The UK’s winter solstice may be today, but its darkest days are still ahead.