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Public health officials here had warned just a few weeks ago that it would only be a matter of time before the highly-infectious United Kingdom variant of COVID-19 landed in T&T. That grim forecast became reality yesterday afternoon, with the Ministry of Health confirming that the strain known as B-117 arrived with a returning national who travelled from the UK.  

This could bring about the harshest test of T&T’s COVID-19 protocols. Epidemiological evidence suggests that this new variant is up to 50 per cent more transmissible than other mutations of the coronavirus.  

If it is not kept under strict control, therefore, the B-117 variant could lead to a surge in new cases, increased hospitalisations and deaths and a strain on the parallel health system—all things that T&T needs to avoid.  

The nightmare that continues to unfold across Britain would pale in comparison to what could happen here, particularly because of our population size and very limited land space.  

Consider also, that even with the imposition of strict lockdowns in the UK, cases have been increasing at an alarming rate and record numbers of deaths from COVID-19 are adding to a health crisis that has stretched its hospital capacity.  

The emergence of the UK’s B117 variant, as well as the others detected late last year in South Africa and Brazil, are all indications of a change in the virus’ behaviour. To cope with this latest twist in the ongoing pandemic, there must also be a change in our behaviour  

There must be strict compliance—and stringent enforcement where necessary—with public health protocols, such as physical distancing, wearing of masks, hand hygiene and isolation and quarantine.   

There is no room for complacency. There had already been some worrying indicators in just the past few days that this country’s COVID numbers are again heading in the wrong direction.  

At the Ministry of Health’s virtual briefing on Monday, Dr Avery Hinds, Technical Director of the Epidemiology Division, warned of an upward trajectory in cases for 2021 with 82 in the first week of the year.  

Yet, it seems that many citizens are not paying heed and in Tobago, where campaigning for Monday’s THA election is in high gear, there has been a disregard of crowd sizes and other COVID-19 public health restrictions.  

Breaches have been evident at meetings held by the PNM and the PDP, including one in Roxborough on Wednesday night, where Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley headed the line-up of speakers.  

Images from the meeting suggest the gathering was well beyond crowd limits and little effort at physical distancing. There should have been an immediate intervention to bring that situation under control, especially when soca star Farmer Nappy began his performance and brought a frenzied response from the supporters.  

Apart from the potential health risk to the Prime Minister, who less than a fortnight ago was hospitalised and underwent a medical procedure for a cardiac problem, he must be seen to be “walking the talk” with the public health protocols.  

That is more important than ever to safeguard the health of the nation now that B-117 is among us.