A new strain of the coronavirus has been detected in Britain, forcing a scramble by authorities to identify if mass testing of people is required.
At least 42 people have been infected with the new variant, known as B.1.525, which has stumped authorities desperate to work out just how infectious it is, given it contains the same E484K mutation found in the Brazilian and South African variants.
But even without a troubling new virus strain, epidemiologists warn Britain’s hotel quarantine system has so many flaws, it’s questionable if it will help the country minimise cases.
When scientists design a vaccine, they seek to generate an immune response against the particular mutation on the spike protein.
A new report by the University of Edinburgh raised serious concerns the new strain could be resistant to current COVID-19 vaccines because of the “biological significance” of the two mutations on its spike protein, known as Q677H and F888L.
But the fact the new strain still has “significant mutations” already seen in previous variants is good news to scientific advisor to the British government, Professor Ravi Gupta.
The academic from the University of Cambridge finds that to be “partly reassuring” because their likely effect on humans is able to predicted.
Public Health England (PHE) is “monitoring data about emerging variants very closely”, Professor Yvonne Doyle was quoted by the BBC as saying.
“Where necessary public health interventions are being undertaken, such as extra testing and enhanced contact tracing,” she said.
“There is currently no evidence that this set of mutations causes more severe illness or increased transmissibility.”
The new variant is not the only thing worrying health authorities.
England’s hotel quarantine received its first guest on Monday, but the country has missed the opportunity to execute a proper quarantine system, said Professor Michael Toole, epidemiologist at the Burnet Institute.
“Australia has made mistakes, but then we learnt from them. The UK had the golden opportunity to implement best practices,” Professor Toole told The New Daily.
“They say they took advice, but I’m not sure who from.”
The program is meant to prevent new variants that may be more resistant to the vaccine from entering the country and derailing the jab drive that has already delivered more than 15 million shots in 10 weeks.
Under the quarantine system, travellers arriving into England from 33 high-risk countries will stay inside a hotel for 10 days.
(Scotland has a more strict program in place that more closely resembles Australia.)
The first problem arises with the list of those 33 countries – even with some 100,000 new cases each day, the United States doesn’t make the list.
Meanwhile Angola, which has an average of 40 cases per day, is high risk, Professor Toole mused.
“Secondly, it’s only for 10 days. We’ve seen in Sydney and Melbourne people who didn’t test positive until day 16, or recently in Melbourne on day 14,” he said.
“I think 10 days is a bit risky.”
Even getting into the country is risky.
There’s no segregation on planes or in the airports. Passengers from high-risk countries stand “shoulder to shoulder” with other passengers in queues before being asked to join a separate line at passport control.
The Telegraph also reported some hotels are still accommodating regular guests.
It doesn’t stop there – if you are quarantining in England you’re able to leave your room, with exemptions granted for exercise, urgent medical assistance, or the funeral of a close family member.
“We’ve known for a long time that allowing guests to leave their rooms is very risky,” Professor Toole said.
“Just them opening their doors at the same time has led to transmission.”
Meal delivery times have become staggered in Australia after a woman arrived from Singapore became infected with the same variant found in a family of five travelling from Nigeria in the room opposite.
“You need staggering of meal deliveries, of laundry pickup,” Professor Toole said.
“Quarantine hotel corridors have become the front line, so we need to be put all resources into addressing it. England hasn’t adopted any of these precautions.”
Staff safety is another issue, with England’s hotels told standard surgical masks, not N95, are to be worn.
There’s no clear testing regime in place yet – like mandated daily or weekly testing – the government just says a “bespoke service” for staff will be implemented “soon”.
The government has said it is “taking decisive action at the borders” and the system will help prevent the new variants from leaking in.
“We are working closely with airports and hotels to manage any issues that arise and ensure the new process runs as smoothly as possible, and we are clear the safety of all staff and passengers is a priority,” a spokesperson said.
But given the comparison to Australia’s strict hotel quarantine, it’s easy to question if it’s even worth doing.
“I think if they do it well it is worth doing,” Professor Toole said.
“But if they don’t, it’s not really going to contribute much, particularly if you have US travellers coming in.”