By Susanta Majumdar
Covid-19 vaccine, mandatory quarantine can be an issue of diplomatic relations between two countries – showed recent tug of war between India and UK. The UK travel rule sparked a row between the two countries. How did recent tension between the two countries around Covid-19 vaccine diplomacy set the course for future bilateral relations?
For three weeks a cold wave gripped the otherwise warm relations between the UK and India. On 14 September 2021 Hindustan Aeronautics Limited signed an MoU with Rolls-Royce for support in installation and services for the British company’s MT30 marine engines in India. It promised to fulfil the Indian Navy’s long wait for a powerful and robust marine engine. And on 19th September Indians woke up to a rude shock learning that the UK government’s newly released arrival policy for foreigners declared travellers from India as “non-vaccinated,” even if being vaccinated by the India-manufactured Oxford-AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine (Covishield). This implied Indians landing in the UK be under ten days of mandatory quarantine.
The reactions in India were obviously loud. Even suave politicians like Shashi Tharoor and Jairam Ramesh criticised the UK government’s decision in no uncertain terms. While Tharoor cancelled his upcoming visit to the UK to launch his new book, Jairam Ramesh tweeted that this smacked racism. Four days later the UK added Covishield to its list of approved Covid-19 vaccines for international travellers but declined to accept the country’s certification process. This triggered a fresh row.
After warning of a reciprocal measure on 1st October India finally imposed a similar 10 days quarantine measure on the UK nationals even if fully vaccinated. The UK government did not put forward any specific reason for refusing to accept India’s certification process. The British high commission only commented that the UK is “continuing to engage with the Government of India on technical cooperation to people vaccinated by a relevant health authority in India.”
On 8th October the UK released a new guideline easing restrictions for travellers from India and 46 other countries. India soon followed suit by lifting the reciprocal restrictions imposed upon the inbound travellers from the UK. This brought down the curtain on the unfortunate tension between the two countries.
The UK government’s reactions in its Covid-19 vaccine diplomacy with India only indicate the slipshod manner in which the entire controversy was handled.
The UK government’s reactions in the entire episode only indicate the slipshod manner in which the entire controversy was handled. First was its refusal to recognise the Serum Institute of India made Covishield Covid-19 vaccine though it had vaccinated its own citizens with the same.
When this glaring faux pas was pointed out it said that the Covid-19 vaccine was ok but not the certification process. That the British High Commissioner himself was not very convinced with this argument is reflected from his press briefing where he said that the UK was “continuing to engage with the Government of India on technical cooperation to people vaccinated by a relevant health authority in India.”
India’s CEO of India’s National Health Authority, and Chairman, CoWIN panel R. S. Sharma was more forthright. He disclosed to the media that there were two technical meetings with the UK authorities for mutual understandings of the software applications of both CoWIN and the UK’s National Health System’s app. He further disclosed that the communication he got from the UK was that ‘there was a full understanding of CoWin architecture’.
The UK government never came out with any statement as to why it found India’s certification process unsatisfactory. It was hard to accept for a first world country that India has been one of the pioneers in this digital service to the millions. From the very first day of the vaccination programme (16 January 2021), CoWin was delivering verifiable digital Covid-19 vaccine certificates to the Indians.
The dedicated UK Covid-19 App was launched in September 2020 while Aarogya Setu was launched way back in April 2020.
In England, a Covid-19 pass required for foreign travel first became available in a digital format from 12 May 2021 in NHS (National Health Scheme) App. This App was used by patients to book appointments and view medical records. England has a separate dedicated App for Covid-19 contact tracing, similar to India’s Aarogya Setu. The dedicated Covid-19 App could be launched only in September 2020 after successive failures and delays while Aarogya Setu was launched way back in April 2020. Perhaps England didn’t take another risk in using this app for digital certification.
The Covid-19 pass as obtained via NHS App is not a real-time service either. According to the guideline issued by the UK government on 7th May 2021, an NHS beneficiary usually obtains NHS Covid Pass within 24 hours of having the vaccination. However, it can take up to 5 days for his/her records to be updated.
So, it does not require guessing as to why the UK government changed its stance once the Indian government took a firm stand on the issue by ordering a countermeasure. The matter was sorted out within a week. This could not have happened without intervention by the higher echelons of the government. Nor it was a change of mind by the UK Health authorities only.
It is worth recalling that this year on the 4th of May, the UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in a virtual meeting took an important step by signing the 2030 Roadmap for India-UK future relations. Through this ambitious Roadmap, the two countries were expected to “elevate the India-UK relationship to a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership (CSP)” level.
The CSP envisages co-operation in a long list of areas from developing human resources to innovation, manufacturing to fintech and defence to green technology. Both the countries considered that they were suitably placed “to bring their respective strengths to address global challenges with regard to climate, security, terrorism and pandemics and believe that democratic norms and principles are the mainstays for maintaining a rules-based international system and respect for universal human rights.” (Policy paper, 2030 Roadmap for India-UK future relations, Published 4 May 2021, 2030 Roadmap for India-UK future relations – GOV.UK www.gov.uk)
For nearly a decade now, India has not signed any new free trade agreement with any other country.
India and the UK are expected to sign a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) before the end of this year. For both countries, this is extremely important. For nearly a decade now, India has not signed any new free trade agreement with any other country. The move to be part of such agreements gained traction after India pulled out of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) talks in November 2019.
In a sense, it has been a huge blow for India where the Asia-Pacific nations of Australia, Brunei, Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Japan, Singapore, South Korea, Thailand, Vietnam and others were part. India is now negotiating free trade agreement treaties with several countries separately and the European Union. This is crucial for achieving a trillion-dollar merchandise export target in the next six years.
After it left the EU, FTA with India became crucial for the UK.
After it left the EU, FTA with India became crucial for the UK also. According to a report prepared by Deloitte (Brexit and “Global Britain”), the Brexit came as a significant change for the UK economy, given that it was an EU member since 1973. Now under the “Global Britain” strategy issued in March 2021, the UK government will have a tilt towards the “Indo–Pacific” region acknowledging its increasing geopolitical and economic importance over the next decade.
As part of its new trade policy, the UK has been negotiating trade agreements with several countries even amidst the pandemic. The UK had concluded an independent FTA with Japan in October 2020. The proposed FTA with India is expected to set an ambitious target of more than doubling UK–India trade by 2030. (See)
In the anticipated trade deal, the UK will be looking for easier market access for goods like cars and whisky; in services, it is digital, data and the legal services which are important to it. In the chemicals, drugs and pharmaceuticals the UK already has a significant presence in India. It is time for further engagement among the two traditional partners. According to the Deloitte report, the UK is also keen to reduce its dependence on China and want to present India an opportunity in areas like fashion (including apparel accessories and footwear), homeware and furniture, electrical machinery where China now has a big presence there.
While talks were going on these issues, the Covid-19 vaccine row became an irritant for both countries. Pragmatism soon prevailed and the UK government realised it was necessary to rectify the mistake urgently.
(Susanta Majumdar was Secretary of Consumer Affairs Department, Government of West Bengal. He was also Secretary of Information Technology Department, Government of West Bengal.)
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