Indian variant UK timeline: The 17 days of dithering that allowed the Covid variant to gain a foothold in the UK

It’s been reported that 20,000 people who could have been infected with the Indian Covid variant were allowed to enter the UK in April. Why did it take Boris Johnson 17 days to impose a travel ban on the country?

Boris Johnson announced that India would be added to the UK's 'red list' on 19 April - despite the coronavirus surging in the country from late March (Photos: Getty)

While the planned easing of restrictions are going ahead tomorrow (17 May), there is mounting concern that the prevalence of the Indian variant could put the brakes on the UK’s phased return to normality.

But it didn’t need to be like this. Boris Johnson’s Government dithered when it could have taken decisive action.

Sign up to our NationalWorld Today newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

The timeline tells the story:

24 March: India reports 47,262 cases and 275 deaths - the biggest daily rise the country has recorded in 2021.

25 March: A new variant is detected in samples collected from India, and comes with the potential to cause the worry of health experts.

2 April: The UK Government announces it is adding Pakistan and Bangladesh to the “red list” of countries, but not India. This is despite case numbers in India being far higher than either country at the time.

16 April: Public Health England (PHE) confirms 73 cases of the B.1.617 variant in England, while four cases have also been discovered in Scotland.

19 April: India is finally added to the “red list” as the country’s Covid infection rate surges. Boris Johnson also cancels his planned trip to Delhi as concerns grow over the deteriorating situation. India reports 273,810 new infections.

23 April: The India travel ban finally kicks in, with UK passengers arriving from India needing to enter hotel quarantine.

25 April: Britain announces it is sending more than 600 pieces of medical equipment to India amid reports that hospitals are running out of oxygen.

13 May: PHE records 1,313 UK cases of the Indian variant, with almost half of these cases related to travel or contact with a traveller.

15 May: The Prime Minister says he will deploy the army to Indian Covid variant hotspots in the UK to assist with surge testing, amid fears the strain could be 50 per cent more transmissible.

As a result of the 17-day delay in imposing a travel ban on India, the UK now finds itself with the highest number of cases of the Indian variant outside India.

According to data from PHE, the new variant cases were brought into the UK primarily on flights from Mumbai and Delhi, as headlines about India’s crisis were dominating the newspapers.

The Sunday Times reports today that as many as 20,000 people who could have been infected were allowed to enter Britain from India in the period before the government imposed its travel ban.

Why did it take Boris Johnson 17 days to understand the risk posed by incoming travel from India? And a further three and a half days to actually enforce the ban?

The vaccine programme means we are in a much stronger position to deal with this more transmissible variant now than we were last year (and indeed the data from the Bolton hotspot of the Indian variant looks encouraging).

But the prime minister has some serious questions to answer, especially if the next stage of the roadmap on 21 June is put at risk.

A message from the editor:

Thank you for reading. NationalWorld is a new national news brand, produced by a team of journalists, editors, video producers and designers who live and work across the UK. Find out more about who’s who in the team, and our editorial values. We want to start a community among our readers, so please follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and keep the conversation going.