The health secretary, Matt Hancock has told the Commons that India has been added to the ‘red list’ of countries from which most travel to the UK is banned, over fears of a new Covid variant.
From 04:00 BST on Friday 23 April, most people who have travelled from India will be refused entry.
British or Irish passport holders, or people with UK residence rights, will be allowed in but must quarantine at their own expense in a government approved hotel for 10 days when they enter the UK.
The move followed mounting pressure on the government to put India on the ‘red list’ after it suffered a record 261,500 new Covid cases in one day.
The prime minister was scheduled to meet Indian prime minister Narenda Modi next week. Despite the Environment Secretary, George Eustace’s earlier assertion that Mr Johnson’s visit “should go ahead”; the trade mission has now been cancelled.
Concerns had been raised about the scale of international travel between the two countries. Shadow Home Secretary, Nick Thomas-Symonds revealed that although many countries on Britain’s ‘red list’ have lower case numbers than India almost 100, 000 people flew between the two countries in January and February.
In a letter to the Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, Bradford West MP, Naz Shah questioned why the government have recently added both Pakistan and Bangladesh to the ‘red list’. She said: “What scientific data is any decision being led by,” Ms Shah added: “According to recent available data, France, Germany and India have substantially higher numbers of infections per 100,000”.
Ms Shah concluded that the British government did not have a coherent strategy for dealing with the ‘red list’ and was applying decisions led by politics and not data. She said: “Contrary to what the government is saying, it is clearly not making decisions fed by science/data. Further, it is knowingly and consciously discriminating against Pakistan and the Pakistani diaspora community”.
In a statement to the House of Commons, the health secretary said: “The vast majority of the cases of the new variant – officially known as B.1.617 – had been linked to international travel”.
He added: “Test samples had been analysed to see if the new variant had any ‘concerning characteristics’ such as greater transmissibility or resistance to treatments and vaccines.”
He told MPs: “After studying the data, and on a precautionary basis, we’ve made the difficult but vital decision to add India to the red list.”
The Indian variant, as it has become known, has two new significant mutations in the spike protein that help it infect cells and evade the immune system. Experts are concerned the new variant of COVID-19 has all the hallmarks of an extremely dangerous virus.
Scientists are concerned that the mutation might be even less controlled by the vaccines than the Brazilian and South African variants.
Mr Hancock said there had been 103 UK cases of the India variant found in the UK. Critics have pointed to this discovery saying it highlights the flaw in relying on the government’s traffic light system for controlling international spread of potentially dangerous viruses.
It is expected that thousands of people will try to evade the travel ban and fly from India to the UK before the deadline. There are also fears that UK residents could find themselves unable to return home.