Time for India’s red list travel status in UK to be scaled back

Time for India’s red list travel status in UK to be scaled back

Give the so-called red list the red card! That is the sentiment among Indians globally, especially as many non-resident Indians (NRIs) struggle to gain entry to parts of the world that used to be open to them.

After the vaccination programme began in the UK, the immediate challenge in the event that vaccines worked, was how to prevent new virus variants from causing setbacks to Britain’s efforts to return to normalcy. The focus of the government immediately shifted to the question of international travel. It was indeed travel to and from abroad which brought the original coronavirus strains in.

Priti Patel argued, with good reason, for the UK’s border to be temporarily closed, reportedly to be overruled by Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Perhaps had that been done then much pain might have been avoided for the British people. In any case, the “traffic light” system which came in May 2021 has caused considerable anguish to Indians who are unable to travel to the UK because of India being on the Red List.


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Traffic lights at work

The traffic light system bars any travel to so-called ‘red list’ countries, and only British nationals and long-term residents are allowed to return from such destinations with a compulsory 10-day hotel self-isolation. Amber list countries require a Covid test prior to departure, completion of a passenger locator form and home quarantine for 10 days. Travel to green list countries is permitted with completion of expensive Covid tests at departure and arrival.

It was just as this system was brought in that India began to be hit by the deadly second wave of coronavirus, with a reported 400,000 cases a day and a sadly surging death count. Despite this, Boris Johnson dithered on the critical question of whether to bar travel to and from India, arguably because he wanted to make his long-planned trip to India to negotiate a post-Brexit trade deal, centred on reduced tariffs for British whisky and cars. India was belatedly put on the red list, by which point the Delta variant – first detected in India – began spreading around the world.

There is hope that that things will improve going forward. Thankfully India appears to have the virus under control, and in a clear demonstration of impressive scientific-industrial prowess has vaccinated over 500 million people, using both the British designed AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine (‘Covishield’) and the indigenously developed ‘Covaxin’.

Now there is talk in the British media of India being moved back down from the red list to the amber list, a nod to the inspiring resilience of the Indian system in an unprecedented global challenge. The next review of the traffic light system is expected to be on this week on August 4/5. With vaccination proceeding apace in both countries and India as a critical partner of the United Kingdom will, all being well, should be moved to the amber list more quickly.


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Vaccine obstacles

There are other issues impeding travel and global free movement for Indians, many of whom rely on access to the West for their career growth or business development. At the moment Covishield is not recognised by the European Medicines Agency (EMA), making it very difficult for Indians to enter the EU (possibly because of behind the scenes lobbying by rival vaccine makers).

However, India does have some leverage to protect its citizens from discrimination in international travel. It has recently indicated plans for an internationally recognised vaccine certification, and it has begun linking Indian passports to CoWIN, the Indian vaccine management app. Previously, it threatened to put EU diplomats in quarantine on arrival in India unless Covishield was allowed, at which point seven EU countries did allow Indians vaccinated with Covishield in. A globally recognised system for travel is highly important to keep the multibillion dollar travel system going, to reinvigorate international commerce and trade.

This is even more the case for countries looking to maintain robust trade ties with India, which is now emerging as the pharmacy of the world. India will be manufacturing vaccines for the rest of the world, such as new market entrant Novovax which is claimed to be as efficient as current market leaders Pfizer and AstraZeneca with fewer reported side effects. It is likely that India will have substantial leverage in negotiations on the future of air travel, as Delhi has already demonstrated in negotiations with the EU.

The head of India’s Serum Institute Adar Poonawalla is confident that Covishield will be approved by EMA shortly, reflecting the confidence of a rising pharmaceutical giant.

Need for a new travel regime

Once India is off the red list in the UK, it can begin working with the post-Brexit UK and other powers to develop a new travel regime, one which does not exclude citizens of the less developed countries.

As ever, it is Indian ingenuity which could be one of the factors in ending the restrictions and indignities imposed by the pandemic, especially for poorer countries in continents such as Africa who have been overlooked by Western powers which have been accused of hoarding vaccines.

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