Coronavirus is on the rise again in the UK.
Driven by the Indian variant, cases are going up for the first time in months. In Bolton, Greater Manchester, the local hospital has told people with minor issues to stay away for fear of doctors being overwhelmed. Suddenly, the road map to normality – and the complete easing of restrictions on 21 June – looks in jeopardy.
But how did we get here? Could more have been done to prevent this new iteration of the virus – officially categorised as a “variant of concern” – from gaining a toehold in the UK? And was Jonathan Ashworth, Labour’s shadow health secretary, right when he said on Saturday morning that Boris Johnson showed a “reckless failure to protect our borders”?
To answer those crucial questions, attention has now turned to a three week period in April when, not for the first time, government dither and delay may yet prove to result in devastating consequences.
It was on the second day of that month that both Pakistan and Bangladesh were added to the government’s “red list” – meaning that only British nationals are allowed to travel from both countries and that even they would have to quarantine on arrival for 10 days in managed hotels.
Yet strangely perhaps, India – which neighbours both nations and where infection rates were already rapidly rising – was not included on this list.
On Friday, Boris Johnson defended this decision by saying that no variant of concern had yet been identified in India at that point.
But the numbers alone, many epidemiologists have said, should have been sounding alarm bells.
In that first week of April, the country was seeing more than 100,000 new cases every day, a figure that was soon dwarfed when it became 250,000 a day by the middle of the month. India was, epidemiologists agreed, now the global epicentre of the pandemic. Grim reports began trickling in of the health system collapsing; of a shortage of wood because so many funeral pyres were being built.
Still, it remained off the UK’s red list and would stay that way until 19 April. Only then, as people there were filmed dying in hospital car parks, did Matt Hancock announce that the country would be recatagorised to recognise the danger.
Yet even then, there was further delay. The red list status, the health secretary announced, would only be implemented four days later.
It meant that, for almost 96 hours flights continued to arrive here from virus-ridden cities such as New Delhi and Mumbai. They were packed with people wanting to avoid the incoming ban. Thousands who landed here got off planes and took public transport into towns, like Bolton and Blackburn. At least 122 of them, we now know from Public Health England data, were carrying the new virus variant B1.617.2. Under the rules in place at the time, they would have been asked to self-isolate but undergone no monitoring. From there, it was inevitable the new iteration would be seeded into UK communities.
This raises the question as to why this travel was allowed to continue. The fact that no variants in India had at that point been labelled “of concern” seems an insufficient reason given the sheer numbers of infections and the sheer rate of deaths.
Was, some are now wondering, the government’s desire to pursue an international trade deal with India actually at the heart of the decision? Could the prime minister have been reluctant to place restrictions on travel because it coincided with his own attempts to woo the country in the hopes of winning a quick post-Brexit trade agreement?
Mr Johnson has made no secret of his desire to get moving on sealing such a deal with the 1.3 billion person Commonwealth country: it would be both be worth billions and help power the UK’s post-Brexit economy. He was due to make a major state visit there in late April, which it was widely hoped would grease the wheels of talks that were set to begin in the autumn. The trip was only postponed at the last minute as infection rates grew.
Under the circumstances, then, it seems inconceivable that such considerations did not enter his thoughts when pondering placing India on the UK’s red list – a move which would inevitably not have gone down well in New Delhi.
The question is did those considerations influence the prime minister’s decision so much that he gambled with the UK’s Covid recovery? If, over the coming days and weeks, the new variant leads to an onging surge here – if it results in more deaths and a lengthening of restrictions – will his dither and delays be to blame?
It may ultimately be another question for the promised inquiry.
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