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'Quarreltine' with India Ends as UK Gives In

Passengers push their luggage past signage displaying the way to a Covid-19 test centre, in Terminal 5 at Heathrow airport in London. File pic/AFP

Passengers push their luggage past signage displaying the way to a Covid-19 test centre, in Terminal 5 at Heathrow airport in London. File pic/AFP

Britain has specifically and eventually accepted a Covid vaccine certificate from India as valid.

The UK government finally dropped its demand for Indians – and nationals of several other countries – to quarantine on arrival in Britain.

Thirty-seven countries were added to the list of nations with approved Covid-19 proof of vaccination for travel to England. The change takes effect from 4am local time in the UK on October 11.

A UK government note issued late evening on Thursday says that India “will be added to this list of countries and territories with approved proof of vaccination 4am Monday 11 October. If you arrive in England before that date you must follow the rules for people who are not fully vaccinated. If you arrive after that, you can use a vaccine certificate to prove your vaccination status.”

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The UK has specifically and eventually accepted a vaccine certificate from India as valid. This will apply the moment for Covishield only since that has been listed as an approved vaccine. Anyone who has had Covaxin, or no vaccine at all, can still travel but will have to face tighter restrictions including a ten-day quarantine on arrival at a destination of choice.

The reciprocal step taken by the Indian government requiring quarantining by arriving UK nationals is expected to be revoked.

Strange position

This decision comes after weeks of wrangling between the two governments over travel restrictions. The UK government had at first blocked arrivals from India on the grounds that it does not recognise Covishield. It was pointed out to the government – not least by scientists within Britain – that Covishield is none other than the AstraZeneca vaccine that the UK recognises, and that was created in the UK.

As Step One, the UK announced on September 20 that it was changing its travel advisory with effect from October 4. That announcement opened up quarantine-free travel to the UK for those who had been jabbed with an approved vaccine from an approved list of countries. The list of approved vaccines did not include Covishield though it’s only AstraZeneca with another name and another manufacturing centre.

Following a furore in India led by author and Congress MP Shashi Tharoor who announced he would boycott a visit to the UK due October 4, the British government decided as Step Two to recognise Covishield as a derivative of AstraZeneca, and added it to its list of approved vaccines. But it did not add India to the list of approved countries whose certificate of vaccination it would accept.

That placed Britain in the strange position of recognising a vaccine but not recognising vaccination with the vaccine it recognises.

Two weeks

Britain held on to that position for all of two weeks, despite intervention directly by External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar who raised the matter in New York through the course of a meeting with British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss. After a week without a response from the UK, the Indian government ordered quarantine for UK nationals arriving in India, in a measured and mirrored counter-move.

In clearly politically driven escalation, the confrontation spilled over into the hockey field. It was announced that the Indian men’s and women’s hockey teams would be pulled out of the Commonwealth Games beginning in Birmingham in July next year, and from matches leading up to that. The mandatory ten-day quarantine was cited as a reason.

In a countermeasure to this, England pulled out of the junior world cup hockey tournament due to be played in Bhubaneswar next month.

Political fields

The friction was now threatening to spill over into the political field. UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has planned a visit to India this month, and past this crisis that could still go ahead. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is due in Britain next month for the COP26 climate change summit. Both visits could now proceed without the vaccine issue hanging threateningly above them.

But the delay has done some damage. Above all, it is still not clear why the UK set out an undeniably discriminatory position against Indians over more than two weeks. Through that period there was no word from the UK why a Covid certificate showing vaccination with AstraZeneca from a number of countries was acceptable but from India, not. Now, abruptly, the same certificate from India is valid. The Indian government had offered to stamp the date of birth for travellers as required by the UK two weeks back. That offer was disregarded.

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The change came the day Prime Minister Boris Johnson returned from his annual party conference. Senior leaders have been suggesting that the change came upon his insistence. A number of other countries figure in the package to avoid any view that the British were ‘giving in’. But give in the British have, above all to common sense.

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first published:October 08, 2021, 13:58 IST