Maintaining caution in Korea, becoming dumb & dumber in the UK

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Martin Moodie
Martin Moodie is the Founder & Chairman of The Moodie Report.

Some 20 months since my last visit here, I’m back inside The Moodie Davitt Report Interim Busan Bureau in South Korea, where I arrived after a five-hour drive from Incheon International Airport early yesterday morning.

Any moment now I also should be able to get outside the Bureau’s confines thanks to a newly introduced special exemption status the government grants to Korean citizens (my wife Yu Lim is Korean) and their spouses who have been double vaccinated, PCR-tested and are here for a specific reason (in our case visiting family).

PCR-tested? I’ve had so many sticks poked up my nostrils in recent weeks I’m starting to feel like Harry Dunne (Jeff Daniels) after getting his nose plugged by Lloyd Christmas (Jim Carrey) to stop his snoring in that priceless scene from ‘Dumb & Dumber’. The most recent of these experiences was at a bleak, barren Busan Railway Station testing unit in the early hours of Tuesday morning after a five-hour drive from Incheon International Airport.

Back-seat blogger: In a van rather than on a Train to Busan but I’m feeling like the latter’s Zombie cast anyway after a nine-hour flight to South Korea, a two-hour clearance at Incheon and a five-hour drive to the country’s second city
This picture taken soon after midnight of the COVID-19 testing zone at Busan Railway Station captures for me the bleakness that underpins the pandemic

Provided our results are negative – and having also been tested pre-departure in London and again on Sunday at Hamad International Airport, they should be – then we can roam free in South Korea’s second city.

We are among the lucky ones. Breaking out of Alcatraz would be easier than entering the Republic. After the long 9-hour flight from Doha, it took us approximately two hours to clear the rigorous paperwork at Incheon International, indicative of how seriously the authorities are taking the pandemic. No wonder the country’s tourism and travel retail sectors have been so devastated.

Despite the long delay in getting through medical clearance and immigration, I did stop to shop at the neat and compact Kyung Bok King arrivals duty free store. I was the only customer and I suspect one of a bare trickle during the whole day.

(Above and below) Ghost town Incheon International Airport. After the bustle and vibrancy of Hamad International Airport in Doha, how sad to see the Korean gateway, one of the world’s great airports, appear so desolate. Remember, this is the location that for years has vied with Dubai Duty Free at DXB to rank as the world’s top airport duty free sales business.

Tuesday saw 1,150 new COVID-19 cases here, an increase of over 1,000 for the seventh consecutive day, as the country battles the pandemic’s fourth wave. In a population of 52 million that number seems almost trivial compared with England’s 30,146 new cases yesterday out of a population of 56 million, a contrasting set of statistics that says much about the huge difference in political and social mind-sets in the two countries.

Vaccination rates also differ markedly. Just 30.4% of the population have received their first vaccine shots here, compared with around 52% of England’s population having had both doses. Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his government are gambling (and I do not use that word loosely) that a high vaccination rate and herd immunity can outrun the virus, including the fast-spreading Delta variant.

Here, despite the much lower infection rate, the government is reimposing tough restrictions. On Monday the authorities placed the “highest level” of social distancing constraints in the capital Seoul and surrounding areas in response to surging case numbers, including the Delta variant.

In England, Boris Johnson and his team are lifting all remaining lockdown restrictions on 19 July. Johnson says that it is “the right moment to proceed” as schools close for summer vacation while urging people to “proceed with caution.”

[Click on the YouTube icon to view the incomparable Jonathan Pie’s take on the behaviour of so-called ‘England supporters’ at the Euros football finals. Warning: This video contains bad (but wholly appropriate) language.]

Even before what has been dubbed ‘Freedom Day’ on 19 July, we didn’t see too much caution on Sunday as some 60,000 spectators – overwhelmingly of the unmasked variety and many belonging to an alarmingly sub-human yobbo species – poured into Wembley Stadium to see England play Italy in the Euros final. “Am I supposed to be enjoying watching transmission happening in front of my eyes?” wrote World Health Organization (WHO) COVID-19 technical lead Maria Van Kerkhove on Twitter.

Indeed. And masks? Incredibly, the legal requirement to wear them in shops and on public transport is also being lifted on 19 July. The government “recommends” that people continue to wear face coverings in crowded areas such as public transport although not in venues such as nightclubs.  Like they do not get crowded, right?

Currently the law says, “No person may, without reasonable excuse, enter or remain within a relevant place without wearing a face covering.” From Monday, though, the following applies, “The legal requirements to wear a face covering will be lifted in all settings.” Even if airports and airlines apply their own rules and demand masks, can you imagine the arguments that will ensue with “freedom-loving” passengers? One dreads to think.

Such blanket easing of restrictions seems nonsensical to many within the UK medical community and certainly to many Asia Pacific nations and I side with that view. Javid reckons there could be as many as 100,000 COVID-19 cases a day later this summer. Could be? Bet your house on it.

Also from next Monday, those returning to England from amber list countries who have been fully vaccinated with an NHS-administered vaccine in the UK (plus 14 days), or are on a formally approved UK vaccine clinical trial will no longer need to quarantine. That is good news, of course, for the travel industry. But against a backdrop of a certain concerted surge in English COVID cases, it’s unlikely that countries will be as keen to accept Brits as Boris is to wave them away on their overseas trips.

“If you are going to train a virus to escape vaccine-induced immunity, you would do exactly what they’re doing,” says Emma Geoghegan, an evolutionary virologist at the University of Otago in New Zealand, a country that has so far managed containment brilliantly (albeit at huge cost to the tourism industry).

Perhaps they should do a remake of Dumb & Dumber. Boris Johnson would surely take Jim Carrey’s Lloyd Christmas role while the imbecilic Leader of the House of Commons Jacob Rees-Mogg, while perhaps simply too stupid, would play Harry Dunne (“If you’re in a very crowded space, would you decide that you wanted to wear a mask? Well you may, but if you’ve had both vaccines your risk of transmitting the disease is slight so in a way you’ve done your societal bit by having the vaccine as much as by wearing a mask, which is why I think it is sensibly individual choice.”).

Dumb & Dumber II, coming soon to a country uncomfortably near you.

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