“India should be placed on the UK’s red list for travel after the discovery of a new coronavirus variant”, said Professor Danny Altmann, from Imperial College London, explaining it was “mystifying” and “confounding” that those flying in from the country were not required to stay in a hotel.
He further warned that the Indian mutation of the virus could “scupper” the UK’s path to further easing of restrictions, despite the lockdown and vaccine program leading to cases falling to a seven-month low.
Public Health England reported that 77 cases of the B.1.617 variant, which was first discovered in India, have been detected in England among which the first was detected in specimens dating back to February. Officials have designated the new strain a variant under investigation rather than a variant of concern, such as the Manaus (Brazilian) or South African variants.
However, Professor Altmann said he suspected it would be escalated to a variant of concern as, like the South African variant, it holds properties that allow it to evade the coronavirus vaccines currently on offer, and because it is more transmissible, similar to the Californian version of Covid.
“I think we should be terribly concerned about it, variants of concern are things that can most scupper our escape plan at the moment and give us a third wave. They are a worry.”” the professor of immunology told the BBC.
The UK government has already banned international flights from 4 countries including the Philippines, Kenya, Bangladesh and Pakistan. India currently is not on the red list of countries, with an air bubble arrangement in operation for essential travel while non-essential international travel from the UK remains banned under current lockdown rules.
“Pakistan, Kenya and Bangladesh and the Philippines have been added to England’s red list to protect the country against new variants of coronavirus (Covid-19) at a critical time for the vaccine programme,” the Department for Transport (DfT) said in a statement.
“With over 30 million vaccinations delivered in the UK so far, the additional restrictions will help to reduce the risk of new variants — such as those first identified in South Africa (SA) and Brazil — entering England. So far, surveillance has found that few cases of the SA variant have been identified as being imported from Europe, with most coming from other parts of the world,” it said.
Only British and Irish citizens, or those with residence rights in the UK (including long-term visa holders), will be allowed to enter and they must stay in a government-approved quarantine facility for 10 days. They will also be required to arrive into a designated port. No direct flight bans from these countries will be put in place, but passengers are advised to check their travel plans before departing for England.
A Downing Street spokesperson said the government’s red list of travel ban countries was “under constant review” when asked why India did not feature on it. Prof Adam Finn, a member of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, said coronavirus variants were unlikely to set lockdown easing back to “square one” because immunity gained from vaccines “won’t just disappear”.
India recorded a daily increase of 217,353 infections on Friday, the country’s second record in consecutive days, pushing its total since the pandemic began past 14.2m. It comes amid a continuing decline in coronavirus infections across Britain.
About one in 480 people in private households in England had Covid-19 in the week to 10 April – the lowest figure since the week to 19 September last year, according to estimates from the Office for National Statistics. Infection rates in Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland followed a similar trend of depreciating numbers, the data showed.
Meanwhile, UK prime minister Boris Johnson has canceled his visit to India owing to the current coronavirus disease situation in the country. Governments of both nations issued a statement saying that the heads of states of both nations will speak later this month and hold discussions. It also said that both leaders will look forward to meeting in person later this year.
The UK premiere was scheduled to hold bilateral talks with Prime Minister Narendra Modi later this month. The visit was confirmed by both nations but there was no formal announcement of any itinerary. Boris Johnson’s visit was scheduled to begin on April 26 and it was expected that the UK PM will visit Mumbai and Pune.