The risk of the Indian variant of Covid to the UK has been increased because of the government’s failure to “prioritise the protection of the borders” at a time when Boris Johnson was planning a trade trip to Delhi, a member of Keir Starmer’s frontbench has said.
Shadow communities secretary Steve Reed told Sky News’s Sophy Ridge on Sunday that Mr Johnson failed to put India on England’s travel “red list” along with neighbours Pakistan and Bangladesh early in April at a time when coronavirus was “running out of control in the whole of the sub-continent”.
But health secretary Matt Hancock defended the decision, insisting that levels of Covid-19 positivity among travellers arriving from Pakistan was three times higher than from India at the time.
Meanwhile the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on coronavirus said that the public inquiry into the pandemic must took into the question of whether decisions on India were driven by politics rather than science.
Liberal Democrat MP Layla Moran said:“The delay adding India to the red list allowed thousands of people to enter the UK without going into hotel quarantine, meaning a crucial opportunity to stop the Indian variant was missed.
“The Covid public inquiry must look into this decision and whether it was influenced by politics and not the science. It does appear that Boris Johnson put the pursuit of a post-Brexit trade deal with India ahead of public health.
“Ministers are asking the public to take responsibility and show common sense, but failing to do so themselves.”
Mr Reed said that the decision to delay the red-listing of India came “as a result” of Mr Johnson’s hopes of going ahead with his three-day visit to meet prime minister Narendra Modi at the end of April.
He said that between the red-listing of Pakistan and Bangladesh on 2 April and the imposition of the tightest level of controls on travellers from India, some 20,000 passengers arrived in the UK from India.
“The Indian variant appears to have got into the country because of that,” he said. “If the government was prioritising the protection of the borders, we may not even have this level of uncertainty.
“Now we have to deal with it, now we’re trying to understand whether this new variant is more contagious or not, but frankly we shouldn’t even be in this position.”
The UK was now “in a slightly riskier situation than we should have been because of missteps the government's taken over protecting the borders”, said Mr Reed.
And he said current uncertainty over the relaxation of lockdown was arising because “the prime minister is not always following the science in the way he ought to be doing”.
House of Commons home affairs committee chair Yvette Cooper said India should have been put on the red list at the same time as Pakistan and Bangladesh, warning that the delay probably led to “hundreds” of people infected with the variant entering the country.
Writing in The Independent, Ms Cooper said the “likeliest explanation” for the delay was the government’s desire to wait until the last minute before cancelling Mr Johnson’s trip to Delhi.
“As we know with Covid, delaying difficult decisions makes them worse,” said Ms Cooper.
“This isn’t good enough. Throughout a tough winter, the British people have done their bit.
“People locked down, families stayed at home and businesses shut up shop. We stopped hugging, gave up Christmas, and we’ve been out in droves to support the vaccine programme. But we needed the government in return to be vigilant against new variants to make sure that those sacrifices weren’t undermined.”
But Mr Hancock said that the UK has “some of the strongest border measures in the world” and said that travellers from India were required to go through a testing regime and quarantining at home even when the country was on the amber list.
“What matters is the positivity of people coming to this country,” he said.
“Here in the UK, because we test everybody who comes through the border, we therefore do know where the risks are.
“And that’s why we took the action we did on Pakistan and then on India… When we put Pakistan on the red list at the start of April, that’s because the proportion of people testing positive coming in from Pakistan was three times higher that the proportion coming from India.”
India was placed on the red list before the B1.617.2 variant was identified as being of concern, he said.
Mr Hancock said: “You have to take decisions based on the evidence that you have, you can’t take decisions based on evidence that you don’t yet have.”