British Prime Minister Boris Johnson was again forced to cancel his trip to India slated for next week as the deadly surge of coronavirus cases made it untenable. Soon after, the UK government also placed India on its travel ‘Red list’ banning Indians from entering Britain amid growing criticism that it was ‘too little, too late’.
As recently as Friday (April 16), Downing Street had insisted that the trip — albeit shorter — would go ahead despite COVID cases spiralling out of control in India, but, finally, Johnson had to bow to pressure from the opposition Labour Party to set an example and call off the trip.
“Instead, prime ministers Modi and Johnson will speak later this month to agree and launch their ambitious plans for the future partnership between the UK and India. They will remain in regular contact beyond this and look forward to meeting in person later this year,” said a statement from Johnson’s office on Monday (April 19).
Johnson was due to be the chief guest for India’s Republic Day parade earlier this year, but thanks to the UK being in the grip of its second wave, he had no option but to stay at home. This would have been the Prime Minister’s first international trip since Britain left the European Union after a bitter divorce and Johnson was extremely keen to bring back a good trade deal with India to show his domestic audience that Brexit was not a terrible mistake. The January visit was postponed till April in the hope that the UK would have got through the second wave. While it has and is on the road to unlocking the four-month-long lockdown, India has been now hit by the second wave.
A disappointed Johnson said it was “frustrating to have to call off the trip” but said much of the work could be done remotely. “I do think it’s only sensible to postpone given what’s happened in India, the shape of the pandemic there,” Johnson later told reporters.
Johnson’s desperation to get a trade deal with India is also being blamed for the UK being so reluctant to add India to the travel ‘Red List’, despite the fear caused by a ‘double mutant’ of the COVID virus that has been detected first in India. It was only after 103 cases of the Indian variant, known as B1617, were found in the UK and, according to Matt Hancock, the health minister, the “vast majority” had links to international travel, that the government put India on the ‘Red List’ along with about 40 other countries, including South Africa and Brazil.
The move has been criticised for being too late. “It was not good enough to try and shut the door after the horse has bolted, by adding countries onto a ‘Red List’ when it is too late,” said Nick Thomas-Symonds, senior Labour leader. The Opposition has repeatedly called for all travellers arriving in the UK to be subject to hotel quarantine to curb the spread of the virus, but the government has instead set up a traffic light system whereby only those countries which are worst affected are on the ‘Red List’. There have been accusations of discrimination and favouritism by Johnson and his Indian-origin home minister Priti Patel towards India.
Yvette Cooper, a Labour leader who is the chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee, pointed out on Twitter: “Evidence on India & COVID has been growing for weeks. Health Canada reported high COVID cases on flights from India since early March. New India variant cases rose sharply in UK thru March. Yet UK repeatedly delayed updating ‘red list’. Not learning lessons.” She also pointed out that Pakistan and Bangladesh with “lower and slower COVID rates” than India had been included on the ‘Red List’ more than 10 days ago and India, too, should have been added then.
Even now the travel ban on non-British nationals and residents entering the UK and the 10-day hotel quarantine coming at a cost of about ￡2,000 for those who are eligible to return from India does not come into force until 4 am on Friday (April 23). With another 16 direct flights from India to the UK and many more indirect ones still scheduled to land before the deadline, it means thousands of people could fly into England from India and bring more cases of the variant with them.
There are growing fears that the Indian variant could derail Britain’s successful vaccination programme and prove to be the “biggest risk” to COVID restrictions being eased. The UK’s national four-month lockdown has managed to flatten the curve to its lowest point in the last seven months and all this could now be at risk from the Indian variant.
Even health minister Hancock acknowledges that the vaccine does not work as well against the new variant, which spreads much faster than others. As John Ashworth, Labour’s health expert, pointed out: “The B1617 was responsible for India experiencing one of the world’s steepest surges right now,” and yet the Johnson government is still dragging its feet and has only classified it as a “variant under investigation”. Ashworth has demanded that it be upgraded to a “variant of concern” by Public Health England immediately, and that “we must act fast when the situation is controllable because in a few weeks time it might not be”. The UK is worried that the Indian variant may spread quickly and be the cause of a third wave in the country.