U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson was slow to ban travel to India, even as cases of a dangerous COVID-19 variant in the world’s second most populous country surged. Scientists and advisers now fear the U.K. has exposed its vulnerability, and the question is if the government machine can move fast enough when the next strain arrives.
Officials privately suspect Johnson’s team was reluctant to close the border to travelers from India for political reasons, with post-Brexit ties around the world high on the economic agenda. There were also concerns the country didn’t have the infrastructure in place to cope with the sheer number of people wanting to return to the U.K.
This week, ministers confirmed the variant discovered in India had taken hold in 86 separate parts of Britain, including areas of northwest England and Scotland’s biggest city, Glasgow. While Johnson says there’s no evidence so far that the arrival of the new strain will mean lockdown rules have to remain for longer, he has already warned a delay to lifting restrictions might be needed.
The U.K. has registered Europe’s highest death toll from the pandemic, though it has rolled out the continent’s fastest vaccination program. Yet as the government promises a return to as close to normal as possible next month, the country appears to be in familiar territory after a succession of reversals with rules eased and then tightened again.
“We need to be able to react more quickly,” said Paul Hunter, professor of medicine at the University of East Anglia. “We cannot wait till there is absolutely no doubt that a serious hazard exists either in a U.K. local authority or in a travel destination.”
In late March, as the pandemic in India worsened, Johnson’s officials still regarded the risks as manageable. His senior adviser, Edward Lister, was picking his way through the heat and smog of Mumbai. The 71-year-old had been dispatched to help nail down agreements with Narendra Modi’s government — from medical supplies to defense — in preparation for a high-profile visit by Johnson the following month.
For the British prime minister, the trade trip was meant to have been a defining moment. It was due to be his first foreign mission since he led the U.K. out of the European Union, and a stepping stone to negotiations for a full free trade agreement — a key prize of Brexit.
According to one official briefed on the discussions, Johnson was under pressure from diplomats and aides to press ahead with the trade mission, despite the risks. It is a suspicion that has caused concern among government scientific advisers, according to one person involved.
About a week before the trip, the rate of infections started to rise, though it was no worse than in some other countries, another official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. Pakistan was “running much hotter” than India, the person said. Johnson’s visit had already been canceled once and Lister’s preparatory work had been a success. Everything was arranged.
The government denies that the desire to keep the trade mission alive played any part in the decision not to add India to the red list of countries that are riskiest for travel.
The decision-making Covid-O committee of top officials met to discuss which countries should be added to the red list. On April 2, it was announced that Pakistan and Bangladesh were put on it, but India was kept under a “watching brief,” according to a person familiar with the matter.
One official involved said ministers had to rely on the data that was available, and that was incomplete. “Political judgments are taken at the place where the science stops and doesn’t have all the answers,” the official said.
But it wasn’t just an absence of information on the scale of the risk that kept India off the red list at that meeting. There were also concerns that the wave of Britons arriving home from India would swamp airports, making it harder for Border Force officials to process passengers’ passports and COVID-19 status, according to officials.
One person involved in the discussions said fears were raised that there would not be enough beds available in hotels to quarantine passengers arriving from India if the country had been put on the red list sooner.
A U.K. government spokesperson said officers will continue to carry out 100% health checks on passengers at the border to protect the public. “While we do this, wait times are likely to be longer and we will do all we can to smooth the process,” the spokesperson said. That will include electronic passport gate upgrades over the summer and deploying extra Border Force officers.
The Department of Health said the traffic-light system for travel is based on regular scrutiny of the latest scientific data, the Joint Biosecurity Centre’s risk assessment and wider public health factors.
On April 14, Johnson’s office announced that the India trade trip has been scaled back from four days to just one. Five days later, with the pandemic in India looking increasingly bleak, Downing Street canceled the visit and finally put the country on the red list. The new measures, though, didn’t take effect until April 23 — a move that one official says was intended to help ease the strain on border staff.
“It should have been on the red list from day one,” said Hunter at the University of East Anglia. “To compound that by giving people four days to rush back — those two things together were really inappropriate.”
As the debate raged in Westminster last week, the government insisted it had acted in line with the scientific advice and the data available at the time. Extending restrictions would be a major blow to businesses. It would also cause a political headache for Johnson — who has said he never wants another lockdown — and jeopardize the U.K.’s recovery.
No date has been set for Johnson to make his trip to India. Whenever it is rescheduled, the row over the red list decision will hang over officials organizing the logistics. In the words of one person involved last time: “Nobody realized how bad it was getting.”
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