At least 20,000 passengers possibly infected with a highly infectious strain of Covid-19 were allowed to enter Britain while Boris Johnson delayed imposing a travel ban from India.
With a surge in cases of the so-called Indian variant threatening to derail the easing of lockdown, scrutiny is falling on the prime minister’s decision to wait until 23 April to add India to the “red list” – three weeks after announcing a ban on flights from Pakistan and Bangladesh.
Rules will be eased tomorrow to allow people to socialise indoors in homes, pubs and restaurants, with physical contact between households permitted for the first time in more than a year.
Limited audiences will be allowed into theatres, music venues and stadiums, and foreign travel will also be permitted.
New evidence gives a “high degree of confidence” that coronavirus vaccines work against the Indian variant, Matt Hancock said – but did not rule out a return to local lockdowns to stem resurgences.
The health secretary said on Sunday that it is “appropriate” to push on with the major easing of lockdown in England on Monday despite warnings from scientists and medics.
But he warned the highly transmissible variant could “spread like wildfire among the unvaccinated groups” as he urged people to come forward for jabs when eligible.
The rise of the new strain has sparked questions about whether Johnson delayed putting India on the red list because he was hoping to fly to Delhi on 25 April to discuss post-Brexit trade with India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi.
He was forced to cancel the trip on 19 April – and India was put on the red list, giving travellers four days to get home.
Analysis of Civil Aviation Authority data by The Sunday Times suggest that 900 people arrived daily from India between 2 April and 23 April.
One Whitehall source told the newspaper: “It’s very clear that we should have closed the border to India earlier and that Boris did not do so because he didn’t want to offend Modi.”
Hancock was also forced to defend the government against criticism it acted too late in imposing heightened border restrictions for travel from India.
The health secretary said there are now more than 1,300 cases of the so-called Indian variant in total and it is becoming “the dominant strain” in areas including Bolton and Blackburn in the North West.
But offering good news to plans to ease restrictions without unleashing a fresh wave of infections and deaths, Mr Hancock said there is “new very early data” from Oxford University giving confidence that existing vaccines work against the variant.
“That means that we can stay on course with our strategy of using the vaccine to deal with the pandemic and opening up carefully and cautiously but we do need to be really very vigilant to the spread of the disease,” he told Sky’s Sophy Ridge On Sunday. “We have a high degree of confidence that the vaccine will overcome.”
Hancock said the government will decide on 14 June whether all legal restrictions can be ended in the final step of the road map out of lockdown on 21 June.