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Patrick Hall: This outbreak is a deadly reminder that we must up our game on biosecurity

Patrick Hall is a researcher at Bright Blue.

During the past few weeks, the global Coronavirus pandemic has shown us how vulnerable we all are to the spread of biological threats in a globalised world. Biological threats include disease outbreak and deliberate biological attack, all of which can have profound social, economic and environmental impacts.

With this latest biological threat, we’re now seeing terrible loss of human life, businesses close, supply-chains slowed, and share prices plummeting.

But Coronavirus is just one example of a biosecurity threat, and one that cannot be contained regardless of how well equipped a nation’s biosecurity regime may be. However, there have been other biological threats in the past. Between 2000 and 2017, biosecurity threats cost Britain £3 billion, and in 2018, 300 pests and diseases were intercepted at the border.

The problem up until now has been that as an EU member state, Britain was at the mercy of the ‘weakest link’ in the Union – the member state which had the least stringent biosecurity checks on people and goods coming in from third countries. On top of that, what was deemed a pest here may not have been in other member states. The tobacco whitefly and the oak processionary moth are two examples of this, both deemed a pest on the continent and yet to reach Britain, but not such a priority for other member states which already have these insects.

In the past, the EU has been slow to respond to biosecurity threats. Take the Spanish potato flea beetle, for example. They cause serious damage to potato crops, yet it took the EU months to place restrictions on the internal movement of Spanish potatoes (where the beetle was present) and there were no internal checks between the UK and Spain because of our membership of the Single Market at the time.

Britain’s departure from the EU means we will no longer be subject to the ‘weakest link’. Additionally, as all imports from the EU have the possibility to be checked when coming into Britain, it is no longer so relevant what other EU member states deem to be pests and what they don’t. As Britain is no longer part of the Union, we can be nimbler in responding to biosecurity threats by implementing stronger measures.

However, it’s not all so rosy. Now that we have entered the post-Brexit era, there will be pressure to relax standards in certain areas in order to engage in international trade. The need to facilitate trade once we fully leave the EU must not compromise Britain’s biosecurity.

Concerns exist that Britain will lose access to shared intelligence systems such as the EU Animal Disease Notification System – which obligates member states to disseminate information of new outbreaks within 24 hours – and the European Alien Species Notification System, which is used to alert member states of new detections of species on the EU list of concern.

In our recent report, Global green giant?, Bright Blue called for Britain to seek to remain part of these EU shared intelligence systems to minimise any biosecurity risk that would be brought about by our departure.

I have passed through Britain’s border multiple times a year for the last several years, and cannot recall a single time entering the country where I was approached by an official interested in what might be in my luggage. Maybe I am deemed to look innocent enough, it could merely be chance, or perhaps we aren’t checking people enough.

We should take inspiration from other countries which display best practice in regards to biosecurity: Australia and New Zealand.

Both are island nations like Britain, giving them, and us, a geographical advantage for biosecurity. Every passenger who arrives into Australia or New Zealand must go through biosecurity screening in addition to customs. A biosecurity officer will look at your arrival card – where declarations of items and travel history are made – and decide whether to send you through with no screening, have your baggage x-rayed, or conduct a full search. If caught with undeclared prohibited items upon entry into either country, the penalties are severe.

To make sure passengers are aware of the rigorous biosecurity controls, posters throughout airports and shipping terminals display what is and isn’t permitted to be brought into the country. And cabin crew aboard aircraft announce to all passengers the consequences of failing to declare a restricted or prohibited item.

Regular travellers would be familiar with K9 bomb squad sniffer dogs. In Australia and New Zealand, dogs are also trained to smell food in passengers’ luggage, and if your footwear has been on a foreign farm it will be required to be cleaned at the airport by biosecurity officers before being returned to you.

Britain should take note of these measures, and where practical, seek to emulate them. Combining effective legislation and biosecurity controls with a public awareness campaign would allow Britain to maintain a highly effective biosecurity regime. While such measures would require a substantial increase in biosecurity resourcing, the Government may wish to review costs and benefits of such measures once the UK has fully left the EU.


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