Matt Hancock and Boris Johnson are under increasing pressure to explain the decision to leave India off the travel red list even as cases surged in the country – and a new variant began to arrive in the UK.
Even after a mutation from India was placed under investigation by scientists, it still took the Government 22 days to put the country on the red list.
Meanwhile, Bangladesh and Pakistan – both of which saw much lower infection rates in people arriving in the UK – were both added to the red list, while India remained on amber for almost a month.
It’s led to claims that the Prime Minister wanted to delay the change so he could complete his planned trade visit to India first – an allegation both No10 and Health Secretary Matt Hancock deny.
But the Mirror now understands the data on which the decision to leave India off the red list was partly based was almost a month old by the time the changes took place.
And later decisions were based on much “fresher” data.
Here’s how it happened, what the numbers said at the time – and the factors that might have influenced the Government’s decision making.
What does Matt Hancock say?
Matt Hancock has repeatedly said that at the time the decision was taken to leave India off the list, infection rates in people arriving in the UK from Bangladesh were “three times higher.”
One of the measures the Government uses to decide on travel restrictions was at the time the number of people who test positive after arriving in the UK from each destination.
Mr Hancock repeated in the Commons last night that “test positivity of travellers returning from Pakistan was 4.6%, three times the 1.6% positivity of returning travellers from India.”
The Mirror has been trying to track down the source and timeframe for this data for about a month – because it is at odds with published data from a similar time period.
Figures collected between March 25 and April 9 show the positivity rate of arrivals from Bangladesh was 3.67% and from Pakistan was 6.23% – neither of which is three times the figure from India, which was 5.07%.
Today – we believe for the first time – the Department of Health and Social Care has confirmed the data cited by Mr Hancock was collected between March 3-17.
That means that by the time the decision was made to leave India off the list on April 2, the data was already 16 days old.
And by the time Bangladesh and Pakistan were added to the list, it was 23 days old.
Is that normal?
A good question, and one we’ve asked DHSC, but they have yet to answer.
What we do know is that later in April, the data used to finally place India on the red list was fresher.
The decision was taken on April 19, to take effect from April 23.
And the data used to take the decision was from March 25 – April 7, according to documents produced by Public Health England (PHE) at the time.
That makes the data used to put India on the red list about a week “fresher” than the figures used to keep it off the list.
The Mirror has asked the Department of Health and Social Care whether it is normal for such decisions to be based on weeks’ old data – and to provide copies of the data used in this instance – but they had not at the time of publication.
Why would the Government want to keep India off the red list?
The Government faces growing claims that the decision to keep India off the red list was political – with Boris Johnson accused of wanting a “photograph” with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Labour’s Shadow Home Secretary Nick Thomas Symonds said: “It was unbelievably reckless that on his list of priorities Boris Johnson put having his photograph taken with Prime Minister Modi ahead of protecting the British people.
“Nobody is blaming people who travelled when they were permitted to do so; the blame lies with the Prime Minister for his unjustifiable delay.
“It was a fortnight of failure and we are all suffering the consequences.”
Matt Hancock told the Commons last night: “I took action to tackle this variant before it was designated even as a variant under investigation as I was worried about what was happening in India.”
He added: “On the Delta variant, we acted before it was recommended as a variant of concern by the scientific process.
“In fact, I have kicked off a review of that process because I think it is the process and the scientific advice that should advise me of the variants of the concern.
“But having looked and seen the data in India, we took action even before it was recommended.”
Here’s a rough timeline of how the India variant – now known as the ‘delta’ variant – arrived in the UK, including the data that was available at the time.
After falling since November, Covid cases in India begin rising – slowly at first.
The weekly number of new cases rises from 78,577 around February 8 to 86,711 around February 15.
That then rises again to 105,080 around February 22, according to the World Health Organisation.
This is date we now know, with hindsight, that the B.1.617 variant of coronavirus was first detected in the UK.
It was detected in the US a day later. The earliest recorded instance of it in the world is currently October 2020.
B.1.617 would later be split into three sub-strains, with B.1.617.2 the most harmful.
Cases in India begin to rocket.
From a weekly rate of 114,000 or so cases round March 1, they reach 240,082 around March 15 and 372,494 around March 22.
March 3 – 17
The percentage of people testing positive for Covid-19 from India is 1.6%, much lower than that of people returning from Pakistan (4.6%).
This data was later used to inform the decision to place Pakistan on the red list, but initially leave India off.
School closures and shopping restrictions loom as new cases in India see the highest daily increase in more than three months.
At this point India is the world’s third worst affected country after the United States and Brazil.
“It’s a proper second wave,” says Amit Thadhani, medical director of Niramaya Hospitals in Mumbai suburb Panvel.
India’s Ministry of Health and Family Welfare revealed the discovery of a “double mutant variant”.
It said not enough cases had yet been found to confirm the variant was responsible for soaring case numbers.
But it added: “These mutations have been found in about 15-20% of samples and do not match any previously catalogued Variants of Concern.”
It was later claimed India’s health ministry sat on this statement for two weeks and the words “high concern” were removed.
March 25 – April 9
Data collected during this period shows the positivity rate of arrivals from India had rocketed from 1.6% to 5.07% in a little over two weeks.
The same figure for arrivals from Bangladesh was 3.67% and from Pakistan was 6.23%.
Data for a similar time period (March 25 to April 7) was used to inform the decision to finally put India on the red list.
India’s daily count of new Covid cases rises above 50,000 for the first time since November. Mumbai confirms plans to raise hospital bed capacity from 13,773 to 21,000, while the Rajasthan government restricts celebrations of Holi and Shab-e-Barat.
The British Medical Journal publishes an article warning India’s cases have “taken a sharp upward turn since March”.
The article adds: “Globally, India has had the third highest number of confirmed cases and deaths from Covid-19 after Brazil and the US. As of 29 March, India had 12 million cases and 162 000 deaths from the disease.”
Public Health England declares B.1.617.1 – closely related to the more worrying B.1.617.2 – a “variant under investigation”.
Officials will later say B.1.617.2 and B.1.617.3 are under surveillance but not yet variants under formal investigation.
The UK announces four countries, including India’s neighbours Pakistan and Bangladesh, will join the red list for foreign travel.
This means arrivals must quarantine in £1,750-a-head hotels rather than at home.
But India remains off the list.
By this time India’s overall rate of new cases has shot from a low of around 10,000 a day to 81,000 a day.
Questions begin raging about Boris Johnson ’s planned visit to India later in April, as daily new cases pass 100,000.
Despite the mounting fears, Downing Street say the trip will go ahead while the situation is “kept under review”.
The travel ban on Bangaldesh and Pakistan takes effect at 4am, with India still off the red list.
By this point, as NHS Test and Trace data will later show, more than half of Covid-positive people who flew in from India were carrying variants of some kind.
Between March 25 and April 7, 3,391 travellers who flew from India to England were tested for Covid.
Of the 172 who tested positive, around half (52%) were thought to have variants of concern or variants under investigation.
By comparison, 7,521 people flew to England from Pakistan and 469 tested positive in the same period.
But only four variant cases were found – a much lower rate than India of just 2%.
Altogether, scientists found 127 variant cases in passengers from India to England between March 25 and April 24.
This figure does not match up with percentages, because only some cases are sequenced to check for new variants, not all.
The B.1.617 variant appears on official statistics of cases in the UK for the first time, with 77 detected.
At this point it is labelled a “variant under investigation” and not split into its sub-families, 1, 2 and 3, on the government website.
Days earlier, the weekly case rate in India has passed 1.4million, with media reports suggesting bodies are piling up at crematoria waiting to be dealt with.
By this point Boris Johnson’s India visit has been scaled back to a day, but officials are insisting it will still go ahead.
A No10 source strongly denies suggestions India is being omitted from the red list to avoid jeopardising trade talks.
They describe the claim as “total and utter bull***t”.
While this is going on, thousands of people continued to fly in from India to England without having to quarantine in a hotel.
Between April 8 and April 24, 3,212 travellers will be tested after flying from India to England.
Of those, 244 test positive for Covid-19 – up from 172 in the previous two-week period.
And 61% of those are thought to have variants under investigation or of concern.
The UK faces the reckoning over the variant as the number of UK cases rises from 77 to 103.
Downing Street announce Boris Johnson will no longer visit India while Matt Hancock announces a travel ban.
The Health Secretary says India will be placed on the red list after all – but only four days later, on Friday 23 April at 4am.
A government statement admits: “There is a high volume of travel between India and the UK.”
But Mr Hancock insists the decision is being taken on a “precautionary basis”, and expert Prof Sharon Peacock says it’s still not known if the B.1.617 variant family is the “main driver” for India’s new wave.
New data is published showing the number of cases of B.1.617 in the UK has risen again to 132.
Travel ban from India takes effect. All arrivals must now quarantine in a hotel rather than in their own homes.
New figures separate out the B.1.617.2 variant and show there are 202 known cases in the UK.
At the same time, B.1.617.2 – now the ‘India strain’ we refer to – is escalated to become a “variant under investigation”.
Matt Hancock will later use this fact to defend his approach, saying the strain wasn’t even being investigated when he banned travel.
But the closely-related B.1.617.1 variant was under investigation since April 1.
Meanwhile the weekly case rate in India hits 2.6million.
Barely a week after being put under investigation, B.1.617.2 is reclassified as a “variant of concern”.
It comes as startling new figures show the number of Indian variant cases in the UK has risen from 202 to 520.
Surge testing begins in Bolton, which will later be identified as a hotspot for the new strain.
Meanwhile MPs on the all-party coronavirus group attack the government’s border measures, saying passengers from high- and low-risk countries are being bunched together in arrival hall queues.
Despite the rising threat, Boris Johnson boasts “it looks to me” like he’ll be able to axe social distancing from June 21.
He adds: “The data reflects what we already knew – we are not going to let this virus beat us. The roadmap remains on track.”
By this point, according to EU figures, some 676 cases of the new variant have been detected in the UK.
That compares to 192 in the US, 91 in Singapore, 58 in Australia, 31 in Germany, 20 in Japan and 18 in Denmark.
Four days after the UK, the World Health Organisation classifies the Indian strain as a variant of concern.
It joins those from Kent (UK), South Africa and Brazil.
“We are classifying this as a variant of concern at a global level,” Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO technical lead on COVID-19, told a briefing. “There is some available information to suggest increased transmissibility.”
It emerges there are 1,313 cases of the variant in the UK – up from just 520 the week before.
Surge testing is launched in Formby as questions begin to swirl about whether the roadmap can proceed as planned.
Days after he expressed his confidence, Boris Johnson tells the nation the variant “could pose a serious disruption to our progress and could make it more difficult to move to step four in June.”
That could mean the end to social distancing and reopenings of places like nightclubs are delayed.
He continues: “I do not believe that we need, on the present evidence, to delay our road map.” But he adds: “If the variant is significantly more transmissible we’ll have to face some hard choices.”
The PM says a huge step in England’s unlocking, with groups of six allowed to meet indoors and hug, can go ahead from Monday.
Matt Hancock announces the number of Indian variant cases in the UK has risen by 1,000 in four days to 2,323, in 86 council areas.
The Health Secretary defends his actions, saying: “We put India on the red list before countries such as Germany and Canada stopped flights from India.”
Downing Street says updates on when full-sized weddings can resume and social distancing can end may now be delayed.
Boris Johnson had suggested they would take place around May 24 and May 31 respectively, ahead of a June 21 launch date.
But the PM’s spokesman says these updates may need to wait longer until more is known about the transmissibility of the variant.
Meanwhile, No10 refuses calls from areas like Bolton, Blackburn and parts of London to give “surge” vaccinations to people in their 20s and early 30s who’ve not had one dose yet.
After weeks of speculation and rising cases, and with the Delta variant tearing through the country, Boris Johnson announces plans to remove most remaining Covid restrictions will be delayed.
Confirming the delay, the PM said the spread of the Delta variant meant “we have obviously faced a very difficult choice”.
The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said there has been a “rapid acceleration in cases” – and experts believe England could suffer a wave of hospitalisations as bad as the first wave last April if step four went ahead on June 21.
Nationally there are around 8,000 new cases per day, the highest since February.
Ministers have been told cases are growing at 70% week-on-week and in around a third of the country, are doubling every week.
Hospitalisations are increasing by 15% week-on-week and by 66% in the North West.
More than 3,000 new UK patients per day were being admitted at the height of the first wave – compared to under 200 a day now.
Earlier, the PM’s official spokesman confirmed: “SPI-M modelling suggests if we were to go ahead with step four on Monday, there is a possibility of hospitalisations around the peak of the first wave.”