A public inquiry must examine whether Boris Johnson’s decision to delay adding India to the travel “red list” of countries was influenced by his desire to start trade talks with Delhi, the chair of a cross-party Covid inquiry group has said.
It came as Downing Street and the health secretary, Matt Hancock, denied politics was involved in the decision to wait 17 days before putting India on the list of countries requiring mandatory hotel quarantine, after Bangladesh and Pakistan were added despite having significantly lower Covid case rates.
Johnson was scheduled to visit India in his first major trip as prime minister between 25-28 April, which had already been rescheduled from late January when the UK’s own infection rate was soaring.
Downing Street is understood to have been keen to make a political statement that India should be the first nation for Boris Johnson to visit, as a way of brokering a new post-Brexit trading relationship.
Concern has mounted over increased cases of the B.1.617.2 variant first detected in India, particularly in the north-west and parts of London, which could affect the future easing of lockdown restrictions. The variant has three detected mutations.
A Government spokesperson said it was incorrect to suggest politics had a part to play in the decision not to initially designate India as a red list country.
“We have some of the toughest border measures in the world and India was placed on the red list before this variant was even identified as a concern,” the spokesperson said. “We have since sped up our vaccination programme and put in enhanced local support to curb transmission.”
The Lib Dem MP Layla Moran, who chairs the all-party parliamentary group on coronavirus which is conducting a cross-party inquiry into the pandemic, 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.”
Hancock on Sunday said the decision was based on the proportion of people testing positive as they entered the UK, saying the numbers from Pakistan were “three times higher than the proportion coming from India”. He said the variant only became officially designated as a concern after India was put on the red list.
Pakistan and Bangladesh were added to the list on 2 April, meaning non-citizens must pay significant sums to quarantine in government-mandated hotels.
By 9 April, coronavirus cases in India were four times higher than Pakistan but Johnson’s Delhi trip remained scheduled and India remained on the amber list, with home quarantine allowed for travellers.
The government announced India would be added to the red list after Johnson finally cancelled his visit on 19 April. The measures would not come into force for another four days – 23 April – during which flights from Mumbai and Delhi were reportedly sold out.
Data from Public Health England shows the number of cases testing positive for the variant increased in the week beginning 19 April.
A government source said the decision to add countries to the red list was based on extensive consideration of the type of cases imported rather than purely the amount, including their status as a variant of interest or a variant of concern.
The slow decision on tougher restrictions for travellers from India has also been criticised by Labour, though some scientists have raised doubts about how much difference an early decision would have made.
Labour’s Yvette Cooper, the chair of the home affairs select committee, said: “This was not inevitable. They should have put India on the red list at the same time as Pakistan and Bangladesh. Since then we’ve had this three-week period in which thousands of people have returned from India, and that probably includes hundreds of new variant Covid cases, and that’s what’s been causing our problems.”
However, Prof John Edmunds, a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), said: “I don’t think it would have been avoided, it could have delayed things a little bit.”