LONDON: The UK government on Friday put Pakistan on the “red list” of countries effective April 9, a decision it said was based on advice from public health experts as well as scientific data.
The move has thwarted travel plans of British Pakistanis hoping to spend Ramazan and Eid with their families (considering the cost of a 10-day quarantine on their return to the UK), though speculation about travel restrictions started early in March when reported cases in the capital and Punjab saw a significant increase.
Effective Friday next week, passengers from Pakistan will be denied entry to the UK unless they are British or Irish nationals or have residency rights. The cost for one adult in a government-approved hotel room for 10 days is £1,750, which does not include the mandatory £210 each passenger has to pay for testing in this period. A negative PCR test in this time does not shorten the duration of the quarantine.
The decision came as Pakistan’s National Command and Control Centre (NCOC) for Covid-19 reported 5,234 new cases in the last 24 hours, with 83 deaths. The positivity ratio in 26 cities has crossed 8 per cent.
Travellers from Kenya, Bangladesh and Philippines too will have to pay for 10-day UK hotel quarantine at designated sites
British High Commissioner Christian Turner in a video message said: “I know how unwelcome this news will be for all of you and for so many of the British Pakistani community that is the bedrock of our strong relationship.”
Sources told Dawn one of the reasons behind Pakistan’s inclusion on the “red list” is that a significant percentage of those arriving from Pakistan tested positive on day two and day eight of their arrival in the UK.
As the UK prepares a phased-lifting of the national lockdown from April 12 in light of lower daily cases, the potential spread of Covid-19 in the Pakistani British community in the UK was a factor in the decision to restrict travel.
A spokesman for the UK’s transport department that reviews this list said: “The decision to add and remove countries from the red list is made by ministers informed by the latest scientific data and public health advice from a range of world-leading experts.”
“The risk assessments cover a range of factors for each country including assessment of surveillance/sequencing capability, available surveillance/genome sequencing data, evidence of in-country community transmission of Covid-19 variants, and travel connectivity with the UK.”
Pakistan requires a ‘sandwich test’ for passengers arriving from the UK, which means they need to show a negative Covid-19 PCR test within 72 hours of departure and also test on arrival at the airport.
In early March, a series of tweets from the British Pakistan Foundation quoting BHC sources suggested that “there is a potential risk” of it being placed on the quarantine list. “At present, Pakistan accounts for about 10% of all passengers coming into the UK with an alarmingly high number testing positive for coronavirus on arrival,” the Foundation said.
The BPF describes itself as a non-profit dedicated to working with the British Pakistani diaspora, and its Twitter account is followed by top British diplomats, including the High Commissioner.
The majority of travel between Pakistan and the UK in recent weeks has been taking place via direct flights operated by British Airways and Virgin Atlantic, as the UAE, Oman and Qatar, are on the red list and their airlines cannot fly to destinations in the UK.
On Friday evening, a search for flights from Pakistan to the UK on the British Airways website in the period from April 2 to April 9 yielded no results. Virgin Atlantic on Twitter posted a statement saying its flights between London Heathrow and Manchester to Islamabad and Lahore will be departing as scheduled until April 9.
The restriction came as a disappointment to travelers, who are now faced with the decision to either cancel their plans or then pay for hotel quarantine.
Humza Aasim Yusuf, a dual citizen who works as an intensive care doctor in London, said he was hoping to travel to Pakistan in May once UK travel restrictions had eased. “[I] find myself in the surreal situation of working through 12 months worth of Covid in intensive care [in the UK], thankfully fully vaccinated and safe but finding the route home to Pakistan meandering ever constantly.”
He added: “The quarantine was already tricky with a job that one can’t do from home and the red list hotel business has scuppered any chance I can fly home anytime soon!”
Some feel the UK’s decision “defies logic” as Pakistan’s reported cases are “far lower than some countries” which thus far have avoided the hotel quarantine list.
Speaking to Dawn, Mohammed Shafiq, a UK-based media commentator on British Muslim issues said: “India, France, Germany, and Italy have cases higher than Pakistan. How can you justify putting Pakistan on the list when they are not on it? It defies logic and science. Dubai and Qatar are on the list because they have a high volume of travelers in their transfer airports. Pakistan is not in that position, so it raises question marks about the UK government’s strategy.”
Mr Shafiq did, however, acknowledge that “thousands from the UK have gone to Pakistan and have taken the UK variant there”.
Variant, low testing and slow vaccination
The new Covid-19 strain B.1.1.7, which has been dubbed as the ‘UK variant’, is said to have 70pc higher transmissibility and 55pc higher mortality, according to studies.
In Pakistan, several officials have pointed to this strain being behind the jump in recorded cases and hospitalisations in Islamabad and Punjab, with a recent report suggesting it has hit teens and minors hard.
Special Assistant to the Prime Minister on Health Dr Faisal Sultan said the UK’s decision making might have factored the possibility that “travellers between the UK and Pakistan belong to communities within the UK where there has been higher vaccine hesitancy and lower uptake of vaccination”, thus triggering additional caution.
“It is the right of every country to protect itself and do a risk assessment,” he told Dawn. “Some months ago we had moved the UK into the high risk category C due to the B.1.1.7 variant and now that it’s more widespread beyond the UK, we recently moved the UK into category B. Our current focus for inclusion into Category C is countries where the B 1.351 (Africa) or P.1 (Brazil) variants are predominant. Our measures of restriction will remain rooted in scientific knowledge.”
He said that in addition to lax compliance of precautions, the B.1.1.7 variant “could be one of the factors that have contributed to our current high numbers”.
Asked if the slow vaccination drive in Pakistan may have been a factor in the UK government’s decisions, Dr Sultan said: “The numbers of vaccinations in a country may not matter when these decisions are being taken. It is the final count of positive cases that matters. Despite mass vaccinations, the UAE, too, is on the red list.”
In reply to a question about Pakistan’s low testing at about 50,000 tests a day, Dr Sultan said: “Our testing has allowed us to get a sense of disease presence and positivity ratios adds to that information to provide greater accuracy of the severity of the spread.”
He said that he could not speculate on the details of the UK’s risk assessment, but his understanding was that countries looked at “public health statistics and beyond sheer numbers, other qualitative factors are considered like the situation in the region and frequency of travel amongst neighbouring high risk countries and so on”.
Published in Dawn, April 3rd, 2021