People infected with the Indian variant of Covid-19 may have used public transport to travel home after arriving in the UK from the south Asian country during a crucial four days before it was placed on the government’s “red list”, a health minister has acknowledged.
Boris Johnson’s government is coming under fire for delay in implementing the highest levels of control on movements from India, amid claims it allowed the entry of the B1.617.2 variant of coronavirus which is now surging in areas like Bolton, Blackburn and Bedford.
Thousands of people flew to the UK between the government’s announcement on 19 April that India was about to be placed on the high-risk list for England and the moment the order came into effect at 4am on 23 April, requiring arrivals to go into managed quarantine at airport hotels.
And many others arrived after 2 April, when Bangladesh and Pakistan were placed on the red list, but India was not despite higher levels of infections, which surged dramatically later in the month.
On 2 April, recorded infections in India were running at about 90,000 a day - or one in every 15,000 of the population - compared to 4,700 in Pakistan (about one in 45,000) and 6,800 in Bangladesh (around one in 24,000).
The announcement that India was going on the red list was made as Boris Johnson cancelled a trip to the country planned for the end of April, which would have been his first major overseas visit since becoming prime minister and a crucial part of his post-Brexit “global Britain” drive to establish new trade links with other parts of the world.
At the time, the delay in adding India to the list was branded “inexplicable” by the SNP, while House of Commons Home Affairs Committee chair Yvette Cooper challenged health secretary Matt Hancock to explain why it had not been put on the list earlier.
“This week, Hong Kong identified 47 covid cases on a single Delhi flight,” Ms Cooper told the Commons on 19 April. “Before Friday, we still had 16 direct flights from India and many more indirect ones.”
Evidence from Public Health England shows that between 2 and 23 April, cases of the Indian variant were detected on people who had travelled to the UK from variant hotspots Delhi and Mumbai and domestic transmission began to take place.
The sharpest rise in cases came in the week from 19 April, as demand for India-UK flights went through the roof, with thousands of people rushing to get to Britain before the red list ruling came into effect.
The chair of the all-party parliamentary group on coronavirus, Layla Moran, said: “Boris Johnson must take responsibility for the failure to prevent the Indian variant taking root in the UK. Once again the government acted too late, and the country is sadly paying the price.”
The Liberal Democrat MP told The Independent: “They announced on the Monday that they were going to add India to the red list, but then it didn’t actually come into force until the Friday. Our group heard in our session that week that all the flights from India to the UK were full.
“If they’re going to announce an area with variants of concern is going on the red list, it needs to be immediate. And they shouldn’t be waiting a number of weeks after a variant of concern is found to put that country on the red list at all.
“The blame for the surge in the Indian variant lies at the door of Boris Johnson.”
Labour’s shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth said that the surge in cases of the Indian variant “brings into sharp focus Boris Johnson’s reckless failure to protect our borders in this crisis”.
And Ms Cooper, said: “The Government was warned about the India variant – cases had been rapidly rising there since February - – but inexplicably delayed putting India on the red list until 23 April, after many thousands of people had returned from India bringing in many hundreds of new variant cases.
“When they did finally add India to the red list – two weeks after they’d added Pakistan on 9 April – they gave travellers four days’ notice to rush back. Why didn’t they introduce additional testing for those travellers before they were able to get on public transport home?”
Health minister Edward Argar told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that it was not possible to know how many people - if any - on flights from India were infected with the new variant, but said he believed the “overwhelming majority” would have complied with quarantine requirements to self-isolate for 14 days at home.
Asked if these people would have used public transport to travel from airports to their homes to start quarantine, he said: “Some may have done. That’s always a possibility.”
Mr Argar defended the decision not to place India on the red list at the start of April.
“The decisions made on whether any country moved to the red list were made on the basis of the evidence,” he said.
“There are a number of factors that were taken into consideration in the advice that was given to ministers on which country should be in which list. Some of that is infection rates, some of that is new variants, some of that is also the genomic sequencing capacity of a country to identify variants. India has a significant genomic sequencing capacity.
“On the basis of the advice at the time, the decision was taken to Pakistan and Bangladesh on the red list at a particular point, and India on that list subsequently.”
Mr Argar said that UK’s border restrictions to minimise the risk of variants entering the country are “among the strictest and the toughest in the world”, with passenger required to submit a locator form informing the authorities where they will reside during their quarantine period and tests at two and eight days for those arriving from amber or red list countries.
While people arriving from countries on the amber list - as India was for most of April - are allowed to quarantine at home unsupervised, Mr Argar said that “the evidence we’ve got is that the overwhelming majority comply with the quarantine requirements”.
The minister said there was no “hard and fast answer” on how many people arriving from India during April were infected with the variant.
But he insisted that the number of people arriving from a particular country was not the key issue.
“We know that this variant is highly transmissible,” he said. “One person could bring in a variant, and that could transmit quickly. It is impossible to completely hermetically seal the borders of a country.
“I do think we’ve got the right border controls in place to do everything we can to minimise - you can never totally eliminate it - but to minimise the risks.”
Mr Argar said that there had been a “minor increase” in people attending hospital in Bolton with Covid symptoms, mainly unvaccinated people in the 35-65 age group, but no significant rise in admissions.
There is no evidence yet of increased risk of severe illness, death or vaccine resistance from the new variant, he said.
But it may be up to two weeks before scientists establish whether it is only marginally more infectious than previous variants or as much as 50 per cent more transmissible.
Mr Argar defended the PM’s decision to go ahead with relaxing lockdown restrictions on Monday despite the uncertainty.
“From all of the evidence we have at the moment, it’s safe and it’s the right thing to do to go ahead on Monday with the easing of restrictions,” said the minister. “We will see in the coming weeks whether anything that emerges from the evidence changes.”