Indian variant: Boris Johnson’s indecision is final – and fatal

Brexit was supposedly about “controlling our borders”. But when controlling our borders became a matter of life and death, Johnson’s government has proved pathetically inadequate..

There is as, far as we know, not yet any spread of the super-infectious Indian coronavirus variant in the South West. But this is unlikely to be the case for long. Infections from the strain are now multiplying exponentially, doubling every week or so.

Exponential growth quickly leads to very high numbers, and many millions of younger people have still not been vaccinated. With hotels and pubs set to open from Monday as part of the latest relaxation, it’s hard to see how the strain will be contained to cities in the North and London. The latest minutes from SAGE, the government’s scientific advisory committee, reveal that it has warned that this could “lead to a substantial resurgence of hospitalisations (similar to, or larger than, previous peaks)”.

 How has this been allowed to happen?

The answer is clear: the failure to close the UK borders to entrants from India in mid-April allowed the strain to be seeded in communities around the country. Until three weeks ago, passengers arriving from India were not even required to undergo hotel quarantine. The result is that Britain now has by far the largest number of known cases of the variant outside India.

The government allowed flights from India to continue long after it was obvious that the spread of the B.1.617 variant there was cause for deep concern. Pakistan and Bangladesh, both with much lower rates of infection, were added to the red list of countries from which travel was banned two weeks before India. And even when India was added, it was a further four days before stricter controls were implemented. Even now, several flights from India and from connecting destinations are arriving at Heathrow every day.

The government’s failure to act may not be unconnected to the fact that Boris Johnson was keen to visit his Indian counterpart and fellow right-wing populist, Narendra Modi, on 25 April in order to announce a planned post-Brexit trade deal, and anxious not to do anything that might upset the Indian prime minister. As it turned out, Modi’s own complacency led to such a catastrophic situation in India that their meeting had to be virtual.

Incredibly, however, on 3 May Indian government delegates were nevertheless allowed to enter Britain, with quarantine requirements waived, for discussions and (unmasked) photo-opportunities with government ministers ahead of the G7 summit. Two of these officials tested positive while in London. 

On 18 April, with calls to restrict travel from India becoming ever louder, Environment Minister George Eustice appeared in TV studios to reassure viewers that the government was following the best scientific advice and putting public health first.

But this complacency was not shared by the government’s own scientific advisers. Professor Danny Altmann of Imperial College, who sits on SAGE as an immunologist, went public with his concerns on 17 April, saying that he found the failure to stop travel from India or to quarantine arrivals “mystifying” and “confounding”.

So if the government was not following SAGE advice on travel restrictions, whose advice was it following? The answer is somewhat disturbing.

The red list of restricted countries is drawn up on advice from the Joint Biosecurity Centre (JBC), an agency set up in the summer of last year as part of Dominic Cummings’ overhaul of the Civil Service. While nominally part of the NHS, it is modelled along the lines of a military/intelligence agency.

Unlike SAGE, the JBC does not publish any minutes of its deliberations, and it reports to Dido Harding, the head of the government’s botched test & trace system. The JBC is headed by Dr Clare Gardiner, whose former role was as cybersecurity director at GCHQ, the communications intelligence agency (though earlier in her career Dr Gardiner worked as an epidemiologist).

The Joint Biosecurity Centre is much closer to government than SAGE, whose members are eminent independent scientists.  Its work is done in considerable secrecy, and we may never see the advice on which the government’s disastrous failure to act was supposedly based.

But we should be in no doubt that this appalling lapse in responsibility was a political failure rather than a scientific one.

It was the latest in a long series of blunders by Boris Johnson that all trace back to the same root cause: his propensity to put crowd-pleasing political gestures above scientific advice, common sense or his duty as head of government to put the health and wellbeing of the public first.

This week, Johnson finally announced that there will be an inquiry into the government’s handling of the crisis and the reasons for the exceptionally high death toll in the UK, but not until next year. In the meantime, there is no evidence that Johnson has learned anything from his many mistakes and ominous signs that this most recent one will undo much of the progress that has been made in the past few months.

We had better hope that this inquiry, which should have started months ago, will be fearless and honestly conducted. If it is, there must surely be a good chance that it will lead to criminal prosecutions.