Upon the discovery of the Omicron version, many countries took swift steps to implement travel restrictions and other public health measures, such as the mandatory wearing of masks. But, given the paucity of data in this regard, is this the best course of action? These measures come at a heavy price, and some have argued that these measures are an over-reaction. Critics of the travel ban claim that the new measures will not significantly stop the spread of the variant.
Indeed, World Health Organization (WHO) officials have urged countries not to impose travel restrictions in a hurry, instead advocating for a risk analysis and science-based approach. Others suggest that given the relatively mild disease reports so far, the harm of this new version of the virus should not be overemphasized. Nevertheless, scientific advisors in the UK warn that a ‘very strict response’ to Omicron may be needed.
Difficult to accurately assess risks
During the pandemic, policymakers have faced the issue of how to manage uncertainty. The emergence of the Omicron version is another example of this. One problem with WHO’s suggestion of a completely science-based approach to policy in this area is that our scientific understanding is currently limited. There is still little to be said for infections and hospitalizations, as well as the effectiveness of current vaccines, tests and treatments. Though trials are underway to probe these cases, gathering evidence will take time.
At the moment, it is difficult to accurately assess the risks we face. Here too, policy makers face a dilemma. If they wait for further data so that they can make fully evidence-based decisions, it may be too late to reap the full benefits of any policy that is implemented. Conversely if they choose another way of imposing sanctions now, the damage is more likely to be mitigated. But adopting such a policy can be accused of lack of concrete evidence and later it may also be that this version of the virus may not be as harmful as the restrictions were thought and this policy may prove to be a wrong decision.
International solidarity may suffer
Not a scientific issue How should we manage uncertainty is not a scientific issue, it is a moral issue how we should balance the pros and cons of various policies before implementing them. The early implementation of public health restrictions adversely affects aspects such as personal liberty and health. Similarly, travel restrictions have economic implications and could damage international solidarity. If the data later shows that travel restrictions were in fact not needed, the consequences of imposing them are more excruciating. Yet these restrictions can be eased when evidence shows it is safe to do so.
Conversely, the cost of delaying the imposition of sanctions may be even higher. If a more permeable variant is allowed to go unchecked, it will lead to a significant increase in infections. This, in turn, could lead to more people suffering dire consequences from COVID – depending on whether current vaccines have reduced protection against Omicron. To protect health care systems from such a wave of seriously ill people, it may be necessary to implement even more restrictive and far-reaching policies that go beyond mask-wearing and travel restrictions. It may also be necessary to apply them for a longer period of time.
We should learn from the mistakes we have made during the pandemic
The cost of such policies for freedom and health can be much higher than those currently in force, and they can cause other social disadvantages, for example, if they include interruptions in education. We must learn from the mistakes we have made during this entire period of the pandemic. There was widespread condemnation of the UK government for being lazy in its initial response to the pandemic. If we are interested in protecting individual liberty in the long run, saving lives and maintaining trust in our policy-making institutions, it is better to act now.
Dominic Wilkinson, Consultant Neonatologist and Professor of Ethics, University of Oxford; and Jonathan Pugh, Research Fellow in Applied Moral Philosophy, University of Oxford