The prime minister has cancelled a planned trip to India next week as the country struggles with rising rates of Covid-19.
Downing Street issued a joint statement from the British and Indian governments which said: ‘In the light of the current coronavirus situation, Prime Minister Boris Johnson will not be able to travel to India next week.
‘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.’
The government has been facing mounting pressure for India to be put on the UK’s ‘red list’ of countries with the strictest travel rules after it suffered a record 261,500 new Covid cases in a day – and as fears grow over a new mutation first found there.
Another 1,501 deaths yesterday took the nation’s death toll to 177,150 — second only to the US.
And 77 cases of the Indian variant — which some experts fear could be more transmissible and make vaccines less effective — have been found here.
Only British nationals can arrive from 39 countries on Britain’s red list and they must pay to stay in government-enforced hotel quarantine for ten days.
Many countries on the list have lower case numbers than India — yet almost 100,000 people flew between it and the UK in January and February, shadow home secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds revealed yesterday.
Prof Danny Altmann, an immunology expert at Imperial College London, has called its absence from the red list ‘mystifying’.
Environment secretary George Eustice yesterday insisted adding India was ‘under regular review’ — and said the prime minister’s visit should go ahead.
He said: ‘There are quite a lot of robust tests and checks for anybody coming into the country.
‘But, look, we keep this under regular review — we take the advice of the scientific experts on this.
‘If the advice is we should change that and move to the red list, we would.’
Downing Street previously said Mr Johnson’s visit to India – postponed from January – would be ‘slightly shorter’ than the four days first planned, with most meetings held in one day next Monday.
He aims to more than double UK trade with the country to £50billion by 2030 — part of his push for more post-Brexit global alliances.
If the mission had gone ahead, the PM and officials would not have needed to quarantine for ten days because crown servants are exempt.
Asked if the trip meant the government was being led by politics rather than science, Mr Eustice told Sky’s Sophy Ridge On Sunday: ‘Public health does come first but that doesn’t mean there should be no visits at all for business purposes. Measures will be taken to ensure that the visit is Covid-secure.’
Labour’s Steve Reed, shadow communities secretary, said: ‘The prime minister needs to set an example.
‘There are new variants emerging all around the world and the government is telling people “don’t travel if you don’t absolutely have to travel”. I can’t see why he can’t conduct his business with the Indian government via Zoom.’
Public Health England says it is treating the Indian strain as a ‘variant under investigation’ rather than ‘of concern’.
Mike Tildesley, of the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling, called for urgent investigations, telling BBC Breakfast: ‘What’s concerning about the Indian variant is there appear to be two mutations which may make vaccines less effective, and may make the virus more transmissible.’
But Dr Susan Hopkins, chief medical adviser for NHS Test and Trace, said: ‘To escalate it up the ranking we need to know that it increased transmissibility, increased severity or is vaccine-evading, and we just don’t have that yet.’
Mr Eustice added: ‘The last I think I saw, there were around 70 cases. It is a fairly small number at the moment but it is something we are watching.
‘I’m told there is no evidence at the moment that this particular variant is able to get around the vaccine, for instance, or indeed that it is necessarily more contagious than the others.’
The UK recorded ten new deaths and 1,882 Covid infections yesterday — up from seven and 1,730 last week — taking the overall toll to 127,270.
Another 139,445 first jabs were given making 32,849,223, and 499,635 second jabs making 9,930,846.
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