Richard North, 31/05/2021  

There are times when things happen in this country, for which there seems to be no rational explanation. One of those is the government allowing, in the first four months of 2021, more than 1.5 million people to fly into the UK, two-thirds of whom were non-UK nationals.

The specific breakdown, according to Sky News, is that between 6 January and the end of April, 521,700 UK nationals and 1,070,200 non-UK nationals arrived. Overall, more than 12 million people have flown into the UK since the start of the lockdown in March 2020.

During that period, travel was generally forbidden for Britons for all but essential reasons, which included work, family issues, illness etc. And for those coming into the country, there was a supervised quarantining system applicable to non-UK or Irish residents entering from red list countries. This started on 15 February, but only about one percent of travellers were caught by this requirement.

For those coming in from so-called "amber list" countries, incoming travellers are allowed to self-quarantine for ten days at their homes or places where they are staying. But no checks are made, and there is no attempt to enforce the rules.

Bizarrely, travellers who stay in the homes of other people have minimal restriction placed on them. All the government requires of them is that they should stay in a well ventilated room with an outside window that can be opened, separate from other people in the house. And the non-travellers who are also living in the house do not need to quarantine.

Given this, it was all the more important that active and urgent steps were taken to exclude travellers from countries such as India, where potentially dangerous new variants had been detected. But, as we now learn from the Sunday Times, ministers knew about the Indian variant on 1 April, and the public was told about it two weeks later, on 15 April. And even then, India was not placed on the red list for another eight days.

This compares, incidentally, with the treatment of South Africa last December, when the travel ban was imposed within two days after it had been discovered that the strain from that country had entered Britain.

We've rehearsed the politics of the India ban in a previous post, but the Sunday Times goes over the territory, reminding us that the Indian variant was spreading fast across India by late March and the country's health officials had warned that it could be highly infectious and might undermine vaccines. People were dying without treatment because hospitals were overwhelmed.

In fact, it was on 24 March this year that India's health officials first announced that "a double mutant" virus had been detected which had the same characteristics as other strains known to spread quicker and undermine vaccines.

Yet, no action was taken to stop travel from India even though the country's neighbours, Pakistan and Bangladesh, had been placed on the red list on 2 April - the day after ministers had been informed the discovery of the variant in Britain. At least 20,000 passengers - who could have been infected with the new strain - were allowed to enter Britain in the first three weeks of April, without supervised quarantine.

While it was widely held at the time that Johnson held back from imposing "red list" status on India because he wanted to curry favour (to coin a phrase) with Modi, in pursuit of a trade agreement. But it has since emerged that there was also concern that a ban might interrupt vaccine supplies from India to the UK.

The very day that Indian officials were announcing to the world their discovery of a new variant, Johnson had questioned whether the public would accept the disruption of international travel under a stricter border policy, despite polls consistently showing overwhelming support for a blanket hotel quarantine policy.

The Sunday Times has it that Public Health England (PHE) discovered the first samples of the Indian variant in the UK over the next few days and, on 1 April, designated it a "variant under investigation". Ministers were immediately informed but, while a a day later the government added Pakistan and Bangladesh to the red list, no further restrictions were placed on India.

At that time, daily cases in Pakistan and Bangladesh were less than a tenth of Indian levels, although they have smaller populations. NHS Test and Trace data has since shown there were four times more suspect variants being imported into Britain from India than from any other country in the fortnight leading up to the red-listing of Pakistan and Bangladesh.

Two weeks later, on 15 April, when the presence of the variant in the UK was finally admitted, there had been 77 known cases in the country. Still, it took another four days for the government to announce that India would be placed on the red list, and another four days for listing to take effect. This led to a rush of potentially infected travellers returning from India.

By then the virus was running wild in India with 330,000 new cases and 2,300 deaths a day. For weeks the problems in India had been headline news with thousands of people dying without adequate medical treatment.

As always, Johnson has been playing a dark game. This month, he was asked during a televised Covid-19 media briefing whether the border to India should have been closed before late April as such a large number of infected passengers with the variant had been allowed to enter the country from Delhi and Mumbai.

Johnson replied that the government had been looking at "the threat of variants of concern coming from abroad", but claimed that India, at that stage, had not been identified as having a VOC [variant of concern]. This, we are told, was the reason why India was left off the red list.

However, India had already publicly confirmed it had two variants of concern – one from South Africa and the other from Brazil - and ministers had been informed at the time that the new Indian strain had been placed under investigation by PHE.

Last week, though, we got some further insight into the background of this perverse omission, through the testimony of Cummings to the joint select committee. "Fundamentally, there was no proper border policy because the prime minister never wanted a proper border policy", he told MPs.

This clearly had been an issue in No 10. Cummings told of how, "Repeatedly in meeting after meeting" he and others had said, "We're imposing all of these restrictions on people domestically but people can see that everyone is coming in from infected areas. It's madness, it's undermining the whole message that we should take it seriously".

Undermining Covid policy is, of course, something of which Cummings has first-hand experience, but this doesn't excuse the prime minister's attitude. Cummings had it that Johnson was chuntering about lockdown being a "terrible mistake", asserting that the travel industry would be destroyed "if we bring in a serious border policy".

The response at the time from some of those around Johnson was that "There's not going to be a tourism industry in the autumn if we have a second wave". The whole logic, Cummings said, was "completely wrong".

All this, though, is very far from just academic or historical interest. Some scientists are now warning that a third wave of Covid-19 has already started in the UK, as daily case rates start to edge up again. This is fuelling speculation than the final lifting of Covid restrictions in England, scheduled for 21 June, might be delayed.

Although some increase was expected because of the easing of restrictions, the India variant is thought to be driving a rise in cases in parts of the UK. Up to three-quarters of new Covid cases in the UK are thought to be caused by the variant.

Martin McKee, of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, believes that the third wave has already begun. "We can already see that the current measures are not stopping cases rising rapidly in many parts of the country", he says. He goes on to say that, "unless there is a miracle, opening up further in June is a huge risk. The rise in cases we are seeing now should cause a reassessment of the most recent relaxation".

Although poorly reported by the legacy media, there was a major "anti-lockdown" rally in London over the weekend, with several hundred thousand said to have attended. This is an indication that patience is wearing thin and, if there is a delay in relaxing control measure, reaction might intensify. 

And, as could be the case, if the problem is seen to have arisen because of what seems to be reckless inaction by the prime minister, the mood of the country could rapidly sour.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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