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Holiday in the UK to beat Covid-19, urges Cambridge virologist

A Cambridge virologist is advising caution for anyone planning a summer holiday abroad this year and reckons a break in the UK would be much safer.

The much slower vaccine rollout in Europe compared with that in the UK – combined with a new wave of Covid-19 starting across the continent – has left her with concerns about international travel.

She adds it may be too early for large gatherings such as festivals to go ahead safely and that nightclubs remain a very risky environment for transmission of the coronavirus.

Dr Jane Greatorex
Dr Jane Greatorex

Dr Jane Greatorex, senior tutor at Lucy Cavendish College, is a virologist who worked in Sierra Leone during the Ebola outbreak in 2015 and maintains active research interests in the influenza virus
and HIV.

She is involved in a number of committees which involve both university and public health representatives.

Dr Greatorex told the Cambridge Independent: “At the moment there is this embargo on overseas travel and I know that everyone is itching to go abroad but quite frankly you wouldn’t catch me going to quite a few of my usual locations at the moment.

“Personally, I would be careful about where you picked to go. Why not have a holiday in the UK this year instead? Is there really a need to dash abroad? We could well have another good summer like we had last year. It’s a very difficult choice but I would be really, really careful where I went. If you’re going abroad, you probably have to fly, so you will be going to airports and mixing with people who have come back from other countries.

“Of course, you will be vaccinated and hopefully wearing a face covering and taking all the mitigating actions that you know actually work, so you can keep yourself a lot safer, as long as you are sensible. But I would be thinking hard about the country I went to.”

When asked which countries she would avoid, she explained: “I wouldn’t be going to France in a hurry right now because they have a very low vaccine uptake and their cases are still increasing.”

Under the current road map for easing restrictions, the earliest date people in England could go on holiday abroad would be May 17. A government taskforce is considering how international travel will work and is due to report to Prime Minister Boris Johnson on April 12.

Dr Greatorex said: “My advice is look at the Foreign Office website, find the country you are thinking of going to and see what they are saying and check the coronavirus links in each section which will tell you what the case levels are there.”

She adds that holidaymakers need to do a risk assessment for everyone on the trip and ask themselves: “Who am I taking with me? Who am I putting at risk and what are the benefits of the summer holiday compared with potentially having a high risk of catching the virus and bringing it home?”

The government plans to end limits on social contact in England by June 21, if Covid is under control, meaning that summer festivals are likely to go ahead this year.

However, Dr Greatorex is worried about people travelling from all over the country to mix together in crowds.

Dr Greatorex questions whether festivals will be safe to go to this year.
Dr Greatorex questions whether festivals will be safe to go to this year.

She said: “I know people are planning festivals. I think people deserve some fun as we’ve had a terrible year but we need to be sure that they won’t be spreading events. If we have people coming from all over the country we need to be sure that we are not then going to have some sort of outbreak and spread it around the country.

“The other thing about festivals is they tend to take place over several days and of course you stay there. That means it’s long enough for everyone to mix and pass the virus on.

“Potentially, it feels too soon for festivals to restart. You can’t socially distance at a festival, it’s just not possible. I think with a lot of effort maybe they could happen but I think number limitations should still be in place.”

She adds that we are “kidding ourselves” if we believe the Covid-19 virus will ever disappear. But we can expect it one day to become a seasonal virus, like flu, that vulnerable people will need to be vaccinated against each year.

She says: “I would hope we will get to where we are with influenza, which means I’m afraid there will always be a mortality rate and it will be the people who are not vaccinated or whose immune systems have not responded well to the vaccine who will be at risk.

“You can’t wipe it out. This is an RNA virus and it will continue to mutate and get round vaccines and our immune systems. You will have populations in which it’s really hard to get rid of the virus and that’s how it goes around the world.”

Instead we will need to live with “an awareness of hygiene” and vulnerable people may have to continue to wear face coverings for some time to come.

“I don’t think we will be socially distant forever,” says Dr Greatorex. “I do think pubs will open again.

“I don’t think anything about social distancing or hand washing or face coverings is going to change (soon). There are massive studies now – one looked across 41 different countries and they still came out as major simple mitigations against the virus.”

However, the situation for nightclubs is more difficult in the short term. “There have been nightclubs involved nationally in local outbreaks and that’s logical because there’s no queuing, no spacing, you are close together – so you would expect that sort of socialising to be bad,” she said.

Meanwhile, Dr Greatorex’s employer, the University of Cambridge, is looking at ways to improve ventilation in buildings “because that is absolutely key and you need to know where you should be opening windows, etc”.

One cause for optimism may turn out to be the effectiveness of the Covid-19 vaccines.

Could stronger reactions to the AstraZeneca vaccine mean a better immune response?
Could stronger reactions to the AstraZeneca vaccine mean a better immune response?

Dr Greatorex says she will be “interested to learn” whether people who suffer flu-like side effects following the AstraZeneca vaccine may turn out to develop a better immune response to the virus.

She said: “There is a slightly higher level of reactions to the AstraZeneca vaccine and I don’t think people should be worried about that. I’m wondering if this is going to be a good thing because when we make vaccines and give them to people, everybody knows now they are delivered in different ways. But with them is always some of the stuff that we call adjuvants, and what an adjuvant does is it helps give your immune system a bit more of a nudge. It might be the way that if you have a bigger reaction, you have better immunity afterwards. I will be interested to learn if that’s the case.”

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