It is hard to find another country that has wanted to copy the UK in managing the pandemic. Quite the opposite: Britain has become a cautionary tale.
When French president Macron said, “we do not want to be like Britain”, his tone was sober not triumphalist. France was the first EU state to ban anything but strictly defined essential travel to and from the UK, followed by others including Greece and Germany. New measures landed swiftly, not with several days advance warning. Travellers face changing rules leaving ‘plague island’.
The British Foreign Office’s website advice shows rules changing by the hour. On 28 December, when Eurotunnel informed passengers that transiting France by road to get to other countries was banned, confusion ensued and queries were re-directed to the French embassy’s website. Today that advice has once again changed, but only for the holiday period.
What separates the UK from most other countries is the planning and public messaging about covid. Where Britain flip-flops in the face of long-predicted NHS staff crises, others act fast in response to medical evidence.
Fast response to rising covid cases on the continent
Days before Christmas, as the British government continued to waver, new rules were introduced elsewhere.
France banned most UK travellers. Spain banned all but fully vaccinated UK travellers.
Germany added the UK to its red list of countries where Omicron was a ‘variant of concern’. Travellers, including students, have to abide by the toughest of rules: only German nationals and people with residency are allowed to enter Germany from those red-listed countries. Even then, as in Poland, they have to go into an immediate 14-day quarantine where they live regardless of their vaccine status. They must not use public transport to get there; must have food delivered and can be fined heavily for breaking the rules. Local health authorities do check up on them.
As late as Christmas Eve, more stringent public health measures were introduced with immediate effect. The German government suggested virtual indoor events replace Christmas and New Year parties; and Belgium announced that its consultation committee would have to meet next week and review medical evidence before schools would be allowed be allowed to re-open.
Italy, too, banned New Year’s Eve celebrations, closing discos and nightclubs until the end of the month to prevent mass socialising super-spreader events. Prime Minister Renzi insisted that any further steps should restrict the movement of unvaccinated people.
Austria had already done this before Christmas. It exempted three-times vaccinated people from its new PCR and quarantine rules.
The Netherlands imposed a strict lockdown until 14 January.
Preventative measures in addition to vaccines
On 27 December, cases were rising across Europe. However, testing was a particular problem in the UK where Brexit-related supply chain and staffing problems, and inadequate planning, has exacerbated an already difficult situation. Promising more tests in the new year, the health secretary could not readily conceal the need to ration them for weeks to come.
Countries continue with a mix of preventive measures: the German government has bought large stocks of newly approved covid meds, ordered 80 million Omicron-specific vaccine doses for May, is funding another wave of short-time working (the German furlough), and – like the UK – is planning fourth vaccinations, especially for immuno-suppressed patients.
None of them think vaccination alone is the answer. Germany warned against just relying on vaccination, mandatory or not and argued for limiting contact with others for vaccinated people. And the country keeps steps to support its hospital capacity under regular review.
Two weeks ago, Delta was still dominant and while cases were falling, they weren’t falling nearly fast enough in Germany. Attention turned to how hospital capacity was used. Compared to the UK, some £1,500 more per head on average is spent on health in G7 states and is higher in both France and Germany. Germany’s influential Robert Koch Institute’s advisers warned that because omicron and delta could overwhelm intensive care units, triage might be vital. Until then, the system of triage (where patients are prioritised in line with whether scarce life-saving equipment can be made available to them) had not been used at all.
With German districts running out of ICU beds in November, concerns were raised in the courts about discrimination against the disabled – as seen in Britain and documented by Mencap, Public Health England and the Care Quality Commission. The German constitutional court ruled that disabled people must be treated solely on the basis of current and short-term chances of survival, with no reference being made to their pre-existing condition. Triage potentially meant higher numbers needing ICU care.
Fears grew about the adequacy of plans to stop the system being overwhelmed by an exponential growth in infections, when the UK announced the opening of ‘Nightingale surge’ facilities. One of the first ‘Nightingale facilities to cope with patients needing less staff-intensive covid care was earmarked for Leeds. The possibility of using adjacent carparks to accommodate the Nightingale tents is being examined elsewhere raising concerns that such facilities would be temporary morgues, and be constrained by want of parking.
Formal or informal lockdown
Despite these various measures, covid numbers are still escalating fast. And there seems to be an emerging consensus that if prevention is insufficient, plans must be implemented to cope with a lack of workers. The contagiousness of Omicron is seen as putting the whole system at risk and countries are trying to work out how to cope.
For example, on 27 December, Italian health experts advised the government to relax Covid-19 quarantine rules in order to avert lockdown, which would become necessary simply due to the number of people self-isolating. Nino Cartabellotta, head of the Gimbe Health Foundation, said that with each positive person having 5–10 contacts, within two weeks some one million people in Italy might have covid, leading to five to ten million having to quarantine. That in itself could precipitate a general lockdown as services implode because there is no one available to run them.
Common action to protect health systems
In general, most EU countries have government restrictions on tourism, socialising and travel to families outside their own countries. Similar official steps have been taken in some parts of the UK. While individual countries’ measures differ slightly, they all seek to stop the volume of Omicron cases from overwhelming their health systems.
Public health messaging in Europe is not perfect, but planning and communicating appropriate responses seems more robust. Alarm over the lack of British plans and prioritisation of party politics over public health is widespread, and Britain’s shambolic response to the pandemic is pitied. Governments seek to retain public trust and many in Europe state as much in media interviews about covid measures, and ensuring that emergency measures that compromise human rights and democracy remain temporary.
All agree no-one wants to end up like Britain.