The Government has come under fire for ‘adding countries onto a red list when it is too late’ after India became the latest nation to face a UK travel ban amid a surge in cases of a variant that first emerged there.
Ministers are facing questions over why arrivals were not banned immediately from India, which is now dealing with a second wave of the virus, despite the Covid variant being under investigation for almost three weeks.
Shadow home secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds said the Government’s failure to introduce stronger restrictions at the border had left the country ‘exposed to mutations of the virus’.
It comes after India become the latest country to be added to the UK’s travel ‘red list’ after Boris Johnson cancelled his visit amid surging coronavirus cases and alarm about a new variant.
Minister have come under fire for ‘adding countries onto a red list when it is too late’ after India became the latest nation to join the UK’s travel ban. Pictured: A health worker collects a swab from a police officer in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh, India
Some 103 cases of the variant first identified in India have now been identified in the UK. Pictured: Health workers attach a notice about a shortage of Covid vaccine supplies at a vaccination centre in Mumbai
Yesterday, a joint statement from the British and Indian government said Boris Johnson’s (pictured with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi) trip will not go ahead
Mr Thomas-Symonds told LBC: ‘As Labour has warned for months, failing to introduce strong protections at the border has left us exposed to mutations of the virus, which has now lead to dangerous outbreaks in the UK.
‘It is 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. What’s needed is an urgent comprehensive hotel quarantine system.’
Meanwhile Labour chairwoman, Yvette Cooper, said the Covid variant from India had been under investigation for almost three weeks.
She told The Times: ‘The India variant has been under investigation for almost three weeks and other neighbouring countries with lower rates of infection were added to the red list ten days ago.’
Yesterday Matt Hancock told MPs that the government had made the ‘difficult’ decision to place India in the highest level of restrictions from 4am on Friday.
Some 103 cases of the variant first identified in India have now been identified in the UK, with the ‘vast majority’ linked to international travel, the Health Secretary confirmed.
He said: ‘After studying the data and on a precautionary basis we have made the difficult but vital decision to add India to the red list.’
Figures show there are now more than 200,000 confirmed Covid cases a day in India.
The travel ban comes after Public Health England, confirmed in a routine report that 77 cases of the Indian variant had been found in the UK earlier this week.
It also comes after Mike Tildesley, a member of the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling (Spi-M), which provides evidence on Covid to the Sage committee, said as much information about the variant needed to be gathered ‘as quickly as possible’.
B.1.617, as it’s known, carries mutations that could make it spread faster and partially evade immunity.
Yesterday, a joint statement from the British and Indian government said Boris Johnson’s trip – already scaled back – will not go ahead ‘in light of the current situation’.
Shadow home secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds (left) said it was ‘not good enough to shut the door after the horse has bolted’ while Labour chairwoman, Yvette Cooper (right) said the Covid variant from India had been under investigation for almost three weeks
Matt Hancock told MPs that the government had made the ‘difficult’ decision to place the country in the highest level of restrictions
Mr Hancock said the latest move means ‘anyone who is not a UK or Irish resident or a British citizen cannot enter the UK if they’ve been in India in the previous 10 days’.
Hundreds set to fly in before ban begins
Hundreds of people will arrive in Britain from India this week before the ‘red list’ travel restrictions come into effect on Friday.
Seven flights from the country arrived at Heathrow airport yesterday, with at least 16 scheduled to land before the tighter rules come into place.
Flights run by BA, Virgin Atlantic and Air India are due from Mumbai, Delhi, Bengaluru and Hyderabad.
Before Friday, travellers from India will have to provide a negative coronavirus test in the three days before flying and then quarantine at home in the UK for ten days. Arrivals can use public transport to travel to their quarantine destination.
From Friday, only British or Irish nationals, or those with UK residence rights, can enter on flights from India. They will have to quarantine in a hotel for ten days.
Earlier this year, amid concerns about the Kent variant, India limited flights between the countries to 30 a week, compared with almost 70 previously.
‘UK and Irish residents and British citizens who have been in India in the past 10 days before their arrival will need to complete hotel quarantine for 10 days from the time of arrival.’
He added: ‘India is a country I know well and love. Between our two countries we have ties of friendship and family. I understand the impact of this decision but I hope the House will concur that we must act.’
During a visit to Gloucestershire earlier, Mr Johnson told reporters: ‘Narendra Modi and I have basically come to the conclusion that, very sadly, I won’t be able to go ahead with the trip. I do think it’s only sensible to postpone, given what’s happened in India, the shape of the pandemic there.
‘Countries around the world including our own have been through this. I think everybody’s got a massive amount of sympathy with India, what they’re going through.
‘And I just want to stress that this is, we’re going to be going back, the relationship between the UK and India is of huge importance, and I’ll be talking to Narendra Modi on Monday, we’ll be trying to do as much as we can, virtually.
‘Of course it will be frustrating, but we’ll try and replicate as much as we can remotely, and then look forward to doing it in person as and when circumstances allow, and hopefully before the Cop summit in November and hopefully we’ll get Narendra Modi over for the G7 in June.’
Speculation had been mounting about the fate of the trip as the situation spirals in the India.
Mr Johnson had already pushed the visit back from earlier this year as a result of the UK’s third lockdown.
Rather than several days of talks with Narendra Modi and high-profile events, it was only due to be a single day next weekend – but is now off altogether.
Boris Johnson (pictured on a visit to Gloucestershire today) had already pushed the visit back from earlier this year as a result of the UK’s third lockdown
Infections in India have been spiking and deaths are rising while numbers have dropped off in the UK
The Covid variants circulating in the UK: Public Health England says officially the Indian variant has been spotted 77 times in Scotland and England since March
India is vaccinating some 3million people per day, topping most other countries, but its huge 1.3billion population means only a tiny proportion have been protected (pictured)
WHAT DO WE KNOW ABOUT THE INDIA VARIANT?
Real name: B.1.617
When and where was it discovered? The variant was first reported as being of concern by the Indian government in late March. The first cases appear to date back to October 2020.
What mutations does it have? The two main mutations are named E484Q and L452R, which scientists suspect can help it to transmit faster and to get past immune cells made in response to older variants. Those mutations are routinely not found on other variants monitored by Public Health England.
How many people in the UK have been infected with it? 77 people so far, according to a report published on April 15. Their locations are unknown.
The news comes after an expert warned the Indian coronavirus variant could ‘pose a threat’ to Mr Johnson’s roadmap out of lockdown.
It is feared the B.1.617 strain spreads more easily than older versions of the virus and scientists say it has mutations which may help it evade vaccines.
Professor Danny Altmann, an Imperial College London immunologist, said there were vaccinated vulnerable Britons who could ‘still be caught out by variants like this’.
Health officials warned yesterday that cases of people in the UK contracting the South African and Kent strains after being vaccinated have already been recorded.
Public Health England says officially the Indian variant has been spotted 77 times in Scotland and England since March.
But analysis of publicly available information on new variant numbers on Saturday suggest cases have risen to 160, suggesting it’s spreading rapidly in the community.
PHE currently lists it as a ‘variant under investigation’, a tier below other troublesome strains including the Kent, South African and Brazilian variants.
But Professor Altmann told Good Morning Britain today: ‘My assumption from everything I’ve seen is that it will become a variant of concern.’
He added: ‘I think our road map is going well and at the moment, in this country, we are doing rather well, enjoying unlocking – but out there there is the Indian variant, the South African, Brazilian etc, and they do pose a threat.’
SAGE member Professor Andrew Hayward backed calls for India to be put on the ‘red list’ to buy experts time to study the variant in more detail.
The infectious disease expert urged the Government to ‘err on the side of caution and act sooner rather than later’.
But top experts studying Britain’s Covid variants said the Indian variant was unlikely to ever take off in the UK because its mutations were ‘not top tier’.
They questioned whether the strain actually is more transmissible than older versions, claiming the evidence was still murky.
Dr Jeffrey Barrett, director of the Covid-19 Genomics Initiative at the Wellcome Sanger Institute, told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme: ‘This variant has a couple of mutations that are among those that we think are important that should be watched carefully.
A health worker in the Indian capital of Delhi prepares bodies for cremation after the city was plunged into a weekend lockdown to keep Covid cases down
States on UK red list
Democratic Republic of the Congo
United Arab Emirates (UAE)
‘But they’re actually probably not at the very kind of top tier of mutations, for example in the B.1.1.7 – or Kent variant – or the South African variant, that generate the most concern.’
Dr Barnett said the rise of the Indian variant had happened at the same time India suffered a third wave, which may explain its higher prevalence.
‘In terms of spread, clearly this variant has increased in frequency in India around the same time as their very large and tragic recent wave.
‘But I just don’t think we know yet whether there’s a cause and effect relationship – is this variant driving that spread? Or is it happening at the same time perhaps due to a coincidence?’
He added: ‘And one thing to note is that there were some sequences of this variant B1.617 seen late last year. And so in some sense, if it really is driving this wave, the fuse has been burning for quite a long time, which would make it look, probably less transmissible than B.1.1.7.’
The Indian variant was first spotted by scientists in March when it was described by the government in New Delhi as a ‘double mutant’.
They suggested that the variant had formed as a hybrid of two other strains and that it showed signs of being more infectious and less easily targeted by the immune system.
Two key mutations set it apart from others – named E484Q and L452R – with both of them found on the ‘spike’ that the virus uses to latch onto human cells.
These are not thought to be key mutations of any of the other variants on Public Health England’s list, but have appeared in virus samples before.
SAGE’s Professor Hayward, an epidemiologist at University College London, backed calls for travel to India to be scrapped.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme: ‘It’s a balance of harms and benefits and the challenge with that is that the level of harm is quite high because we’re highly connected with India – there’s a lot of economic interaction as well as family and social interaction.
‘And on the other hand, what we have is an unknown level of risk – my own preference in all of this is to err on the side of caution and to act sooner rather than later. But ultimately, that’s going to be a political decision.’
But Professor Hayward admitted scientists aren’t sure whether the variant is actually more infectious than older versions.
He added: ‘The evidence of increased transmissibility and escape from immunity is circumstantial.’
Professor Danny Altmann (left), an Imperial College London immunologist, said there were vaccinated vulnerable Britons who could ‘still be caught out by variants like this’. SAGE member Professor Andrew Hayward (right) backed calls for India to be put on the ‘red list’ to buy experts time to study the variant in more detail