The latest changes in the United Kingdom government's COVID-19-related travel restrictions has renewed controversy over freedom of international travel during the pandemic.
The UK, on 17 September, changed its Covid-19 travel rules, placing Indians who are vaccinated with AstraZeneca's Covishield (in use globally as Vaxzervria) in the category of 'unvaccinated' and will have to undergo 10 days of quarantine.
The new rules, which were unveiled on Friday and will become effective from 4 October, were described by the UK as an attempt to change the current "red, amber, green traffic light system" to a single red list of countries and "simplified travel measures" for arrivals from around the world.
Under these rules, only people who have got both shots of a double-dose vaccine such as Oxford-AstraZeneca, Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna or the single shot Janssen vaccine "under an approved vaccination program in the UK, Europe, US or UK vaccine programme overseas" will be considered fully vaccinated.
What do UK's rules mean for India travellers?
The new rules effectively mean that Indians administered with Covishield, the same vaccine as the UK's AstraZeneca, have to take a pre-departure COVID-19 test in the three days before travelling to England; book and pay for day-two and day-eight tests to be taken in England; and quarantine at home for 10 days.
The traveller can end the quarantine early if she can pay for a private Covid-19 test through a 'test to release' scheme.
The advisory is of concern for India, where Covishield is the most widely used vaccine and its non-recognition by the UK (despite its government using the same drug under a different name) will hamper travel plans of students, tourists, business people and others vaccinated in this country.
Covishield already has EUA, or emergency use approval, status from the World Health Organisation.
The new rules invited criticism from Congress leader Shashi Tharoor, who explained it poignantly during an interview to India Today: "If it was any other country, they might have been a little more understanding, but Britain uses the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine which is itself manufactured by the Serum Institute in Pune and which is what we are taking under the name Covishield.
"If Covishield is what the British are taking under a different brand name, how on earth can you say that one set of vaccinations is accepted and another set is not and you have to quarantine. That kind of double standard is absolutely breathtaking."
Tharoor's party colleague Jairam Ramesh also chimed in, calling the rules "racist."
"Absolutely bizarre considering Covishield was originally developed in the UK and The Serum Institute, Pune, has supplied to that country too! This smacks of racism," he tweeted.
Absolutely bizarre considering Covishield was originally developed in the UK and The Serum Institute, Pune has supplied to that country too! This smacks of racism. https://t.co/GtKOzMgydf
- Jairam Ramesh (@Jairam_Ramesh) September 20, 2021
India takes up the matter
The government has taken up the matter with UK, with External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar urged his counterpart in the British government, Elizabeth Truss, to expeditiously ensure recognition of the certificates issued by the Government of India to people fully inoculated with the Covishield COVID-19 vaccines so that they could visit UK without any hassle.
"Urged early resolution of quarantine issue in mutual interests," Jaishankar tweeted after his meeting with Truss in New York, where both of them arrived to take part in the meetings related to the 76th session of the United Nations General Assembly.
Pleased to meet new UK Foreign Secretary @trussliz.
Discussed the progress of Roadmap 2030. Appreciated her contribution on the trade side.
Exchanged views on developments in Afghanistan and the Indo-Pacific.
Urged early resolution of quarantine issue in mutual interest. pic.twitter.com/pc49NS7zcw
- Dr. S. Jaishankar (@DrSJaishankar) September 21, 2021
The issue is likely to come up again when Prime Minister Narendra Modi will have a bilateral meeting with his UK counterpart Boris Johnson in Washington later this week.
EU row over Covishield
In July, there was controversy over Covishield's acceptance by the European Union as well.
The EMA, or European Medical Agency, approved Vaxzervria but not Covishield, prompting the Indian government to warn that it would rescind reciprocal authorisation for the former.
Currently, 18 European countries have so far approved the Covishield vaccine including France, Germany, Spain, Switzerland, Sweden, Ireland, Austria, Belgium, Netherlands, Bulgaria, Croatia, Finland, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Latvia, Romania, and Slovenia.
With inputs from agencies