Shetland Times Column 3rd December 2021

The discovery of a new variant of Covid-19 detected in southern Africa at the end of last week, named Omicron, has taken the Covid-19 pandemic to a new chapter. At this stage the advice remains the same. Wear a face covering when in public, limit interactions, clean hands and surfaces, keep distances, self-isolate and book a test if you have symptoms, test regularly and before socialising, open windows, keep areas ventilated or meet outside and get vaccinated.

Vaccination is a key measure that people can get to protect themselves and others from the worst of this virus. It is not yet known if current vaccines are less effective on Omicron but that does not mean that they are ineffective.

What is happening in southern Africa is a stark reminder of the existential threat posed to our own recovery by the collective failure to help vaccinate the whole world. It is only when we are all vaccinated that we will truly destabilise the Covid pandemic. The fastest way to end the pandemic is to ensure vaccines are available to everyone. We are all inter-connected and inter-dependent.

But, only a few countries have widespread access to vaccines, which means the virus will continue to mutate, as we have seen with Omicron. Any version of Covid-19 won’t recognise borders. Therefore, world leaders established Covax whereby jabs would be donated to less wealthy countries by richer ones. But we have seen countries hold on to vaccines, even batches that are going out of date, rather than send them abroad.

Liberal Democrats are calling on the UK Government to reverse aid cuts and launch an emergency Covid support fund, to help countries in southern Africa contain the new variant spreading. Emergency support will help contain and track the new variant, and vaccinate vulnerable populations. The UK is slashing aid to southern Africa and Zimbabwe by £30m next year, or by over a third (35%). In addition to this, UK aid spending on global health funding has been slashed by £243 million, from over £1.1 billion to 915 million, a 21% drop.

My party would Immediately reverse UK aid cuts to southern African countries and global health funding, with a focus on supporting local healthcare systems; set up and improve systems to track and sequence variants in the region. Donating vaccine doses and boosters to help rapidly increase vaccination rates, particularly among vulnerable people, and sending aid and supporting health systems is an investment into a healthier future for all of us.

There is more we will learn about Omicron. Scientists are already working to adapt vaccines as and if necessary. But we know how to disrupt the spread of Covid through current methods of mitigation. This may be a new chapter in the Covid-19 pandemic, but islanders know that we can get through this just as we have before. While it might be through additional testing or one or two more video calls this festive season, we will get through this together.

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