Paul Charles, chief executive of PR consultancy The PC Agency, outlines why the number 20 matters so much in 2020

Few of us in the travel sector had heard of the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control even a few weeks ago. The ECDC, ironically based in Sweden, is an agency of the European Union aimed at strengthening Europe’s defences against infectious diseases.

Yet this previously little-known agency is now playing a vital role in charting the path of which countries are next to be added to the UK Government’s quarantine list, or indeed removed from it as Malaysia and Brunei will be as of Tuesday.

Each day the ECDC publishes the latest, grim global data on coronavirus case numbers and deaths per country. From Aruba to Bolivia, Croatia to Israel, Mexico to Pakistan, the numbers tell the story of the day-by-day march of Covid-19 across the world.

And it’s one statistic in particular that is being watched the most closely by Public Health England and the Joint Biosecurity Centre; that is the cumulative number, over seven days, of Covid-19 cases per 100,000 of the population.

It is this statistic which first raised worrying alarm bells in Whitehall about the sudden spike in Covid cases in Spain. In the week to July 25, when the quarantine for anyone returning to the UK from Spain was announced, the case numbers per 100,000 had risen from 20 to 39, a 90% plus increase in the rate of infection. That number has soared to 89 – an indication if one were needed of why the government moved so fast to target Spain.

To put this into further context, South Africa has a scarily high case rate of over 200 per 100,000.

While some other criteria are measured and monitored by Professor Chris Whitty and his team, and cabinet ministers including transport secretary Grant Shapps and foreign secretary Dominic Raab, such as health infrastructure in a country and the track record of the medical authorities on the ground, it is the case number per 100,000 that now matters.

Which is why all the talk of the next country to be put onto the government’s quarantine list is France. In the last week, its case numbers per 100,000 have increased from 17 (higher than the UK’s at 14) to 26, a jump of 50%.

I know from senior government sources that anything above 20 per 100,000 for a period of seven days or more is likely to lead to that country being added to the quarantine list.

On that basis, France has just two days to gets its numbers below 20 – which is highly unlikely despite facemasks now being mandatory in many outdoor public spaces, not just indoors in shops. So, when the UK government next reviews countries and its quarantine policy, due this Thursday (but an announcement may come before), France is certain to be added, with 30 hours’ notice being given.

Other European countries are on the verge of being added later this week too – the Netherlands, Switzerland, Poland and Malta in particular.

Portugal and Sweden remain stubbornly high, meaning these two countries won’t see quarantine relaxed much before the end of August, dashing hopes of a late summer season.

All of this means that more countries will face the quagmire of quarantine very soon. There will be fewer tourists, who have been put off by the thought of having to quarantine for 14 days on their return and, as a result, lower tourism spend in their economies. Not to mention the impact on the UK economy of putting off visitors to our country.

Which all begs the question why, if we’re to learn to live with coronavirus, there isn’t more effort being put into testing, testing and more testing? Temperature checks and swab/saliva tests at our airports on arrival, as well as world-class test and trace. Combine all of these and you have a pretty effective system medically but one which has less impact financially due to the fact you don’t need to quarantine everyone visiting the UK from a high-risk country.

Like the ECDC, the UK needs to focus much more on strengthening our defences against such infectious diseases. Then the blunt instrument of quarantine can be cast aside, hopefully forever.