LONDON: British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has cancelled his planned visit to India next week due to the coronavirus situation in the country, Downing Street said on Monday.
Johnson, who admitted it was “frustrating” but “only sensible” to call off the visit, will instead speak to Prime Minister Narendra Modi later this month to launch their plans for the future UK-India partnership, with their physical meeting expected later in the year.
“Narendra Modi and I have basically come to the conclusion that, very sadly, I won’t be able to go ahead with the trip,” Johnson told reporters, during a visit to Gloucestershire soon after the Downing Street announcement.
“I do think it’s only sensible to postpone, given what’s happened in India, the shape of the pandemic there. Countries around the world including our own have been through this. I think everybody’s got a massive amount of sympathy with India, what they’re going through,” he said.
Asked if India would be added to the “red list” of countries, which imposes an effective travel ban and compulsory 10-day hotel quarantine for any returning UK residents, Johnson said that was “very much a matter for the independent UK Health Security Agency -they will have to take that decision”.
Last week, Public Health England (PHE) said that 77 cases of the so-called “double mutant” Indian variant have been detected in the UK since last month and that it has now been classed as a Variant Under Investigation (VUI) in the country.
Pressure had been mounting on Johnson to call off the visit to India amid growing concerns over the new variant, which is believed to be behind the current spike in infections in India.
“In the light of the current coronavirus situation, Prime Minister Boris Johnson will not be able to travel to India next week,” Downing Street earlier said in a joint statement on behalf of the British and Indian governments.
“Instead, Prime Ministers Modi and Johnson will speak later this month to agree and launch their ambitious plans for the future partnership between the UK and India. They will remain in regular contact beyond this, and look forward to meeting in person later this year,” the statement said.
The Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) in New Delhi said the decision followed a mutual agreement and that the two leaders will hold a virtual meeting in the coming days instead.
“The two sides will be holding a virtual meeting in the coming days to launch plans for a transformed India-UK relationship. Both leaders attach the highest importance to taking the India-UK partnership to its fullest potential and propose to remain in close touch in this regard and look forward to an in-person meeting later in the year,” the MEA spokesperson said.
Over the weekend, UK Opposition Labour Party joined calls for Johnson to conduct the discussions with his Indian counterpart remotely via Zoom and cancel the physical visit, which had already been shortened to focus on a day-long packed schedule on Monday, April 26.
Both sides were to agree on a ‘Roadmap 2030’ for re-energised India-UK relations across trade and investment and climate action, which is now likely to be signed off remotely later this month.
The visit, previously postponed from a Republic Day tour in January due to a spike in coronavirus infections and national lockdown in Britain at the time, was to be the first major bilateral visit for Johnson outside Europe since the UK general election in December 2019 and the conclusion of the Brexit transition period at the end of December 2020.
“The visit of PM Johnson is expected to positively transform the partnership across the wide-spectrum of issues and areas relating to Defence and Security, the Indo-Pacific and Western Indian Ocean Region (WIOR), Trade and Investments, Health care, Climate Change and people-to-people connect,” the High Commission of India in London said last week.
“India and UK are set to agree on a ‘Roadmap 2030’ for future relations. The 2030 vision is for revitalised and dynamic connect between people; re-energised trade, investment and technological collaboration; enhanced defence and security cooperation and closer engagement on regional issues – Including the Indian Ocean Region and the Indo-Pacific. The India-UK Partnership in Climate Action, clean energy and health care is geared for mutual benefit and a better world,” it added.
As part of the UK’s post-Brexit Global Britain engagement as a non-member of the European Union (EU), all eyes have been on a proposed Enhanced Trade Partnership (ETP) with India which will pave the way for a full-fledged Free Trade Agreement (FTA) in the future.
The ETP was expected to take firm shape during Johnson’s visit this month but it remains to be seen how that progresses given the cancellation.
Prime Minister Modi is invited to the G7 Summit in Cornwall in June, with India among the guest countries.
That is now likely to be their next face to face meeting, if Modi is able to travel for the summit and the event goes ahead as planned between June 11 and 13.