PM defends not closing UK's borders to India sooner

14 May 2021, 19:38 | Updated: 15 May 2021, 10:56

Boris Johnson has been criticised for not adding India to the red list sooner
Boris Johnson has been criticised for not adding India to the red list sooner. Picture: PA

By Patrick Grafton-Green

Boris Johnson has defended not closing the UK's borders to India sooner, saying the coronavirus strain that has emerged from there was not yet a variant of concern in March and April.

The Prime Minister was told at Friday’s Downing Street press conference that, according to Public Health England data, at least 122 passengers arriving from Dehli and Mumbai during late March and April were carrying the India variant.

More investigation into the variant is being undertaken and there is no evidence that vaccines are less effective against it.

Asked whether it was a mistake not to close the border, Mr Johnson insisted “at that stage India was not identified as having a variant of concern so that's why the decision was taken.”

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He said: “Pakistan for instance had three times as much variants of concern, they had in particular the South African variant so that was the reason for that decision.”

Health authorities in England designated the India strain a variant of concern on May 7, while the World Health Organization did so three days later.

India was added to the red list on April 23, while the Government added Pakistan and Bangladesh, which had far lower case rates of the virus, to the list on April 9.

This has led to criticism of the PM, who cancelled a major visit to India last month, for not acting sooner.

The red list rules mean entry will be refused to most people who have travelled from India in the last 10 days, while British or Irish passport holders have to quarantine in a government-approved hotel for 10 days.

Mr Johnson added: “Don't forget everyone coming from India, or indeed anywhere else, had to face very tough quarantine rules.”

However, he said although the variant appears to be more transmissible than the Kent strain, there is "no evidence to suggest that our vaccines will be less effective in protecting people against severe illness and hospitalisation".

He also said remaining second doses for the over-50s will be accelerated so they come eight weeks after the first.

He said: "The race between our vaccination programme and the virus may be about to become a great deal tighter and it's more important than ever therefore that people get the protection of a second dose.

"So following advice from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation we will accelerate remaining second doses to the over-50s and those clinically vulnerable right across the country so those doses come just eight weeks after the first dose."

The Prime Minister added: "We will also prioritise first doses for anyone eligible who has not yet come forward including the over 40s."

England's chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty said delays to the vaccination programme for younger people are not expected despite the change in strategy.

He told the press conference: "The prioritisation of second doses will not, we think, delay the situation, the rollout, for people who are in younger ages."