LONDON: The British government’s latest quarantine traffic light system update has come under heavy criticism by British MPs and citizens, with some saying the decision to keep Pakistan on the red list when other countries have been removed is “political” and not led by scientific data.

“I am surprised that India has moved to the amber list, whilst Pakistan remains on the red list.

It is not the first time that this government has shown such callous behaviour when dealing with the quarantine traffic light system,” said Labour MP Naz Shah in a statement after the announcement.

She added, “India’s seven-day infection rate is 20 per 100,000 people and [it] is now on the amber list but Pakistan, whose seven-day infection rate is just 14 per 100,000 people, well below the vast majority of amber list restrictions, remains on the list.

“The last time this government favoured policial choices rather than science and risked our nation’s Covid-19 efforts it failed to place India on the red list. That led to the Delta Variant becoming the most prominent Covid variant in the UK,” said Shah.

UK Transport Secretary Grant Shapps late on Wednesday announced that the UAE, Qatar, India and Bahrain will be moved from the country’s red list and placed on the amber list.

This means that, effective August 8, travelers from these countries are not required to observe hotel quarantine. Travellers from most countries on the amber list are only required to isolate at home.

There was no change, however, in the travel restrictions for Pakistan or Turkey. Pakistan has been on the UK government’s red list since April 9 this year. Travellers from Pakistan must observe a mandatory 10-day hotel quarantine, which will now cost GBP2,285 – which is GBP500 higher than it was previously.

India, where cases were rapidly increasing in April, was added to the red list weeks after Pakistan on April 23.

Labour MP for Slough, Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi, termed Pakistan’s exclusion from the amber list “disappointing”.

He said: “Government decisions on travel lists must be rooted in science, not politics.” In his tweet, he attached an image of a letter written to the foreign secretary and the transport secretary, in which he calls for a response detailing the government’s reasoning behind the decision. He said: “I am sure other MPs will voice concerns about this and also about the inclusion of other similarly affected nations, especially regarding the lack of transparency on such decision making.”

Labour MP for Luton North, Sarah Owen, tweeted graphs of the Covid-19 cases in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh and said, “It’s tough to see the reasoning behind latest changes to travel lists, even when vaccination rates are taken into account.

“When you see figures like this, Tory Ministers have a lot of explaining to do as to why India is going amber yet Pakistan & other countries remain red.”

High Commissioner Moazzam Ahmad Khan speaking to reporters here said the matter had been taken up with the British government. “We have formally taken this up with the British government. Although the situation in Karachi is a bit bad, overall in Pakistan the situation has improved. Pakistan in terms of improving Covid-19, our government has done tremendous work which is being recognised the world over. The British government should also appreciate these efforts.”

In Pakistan, federal ministers criticised the UK government’s decision.

“How can UK govt rationally place India on Amber list while keeping Pakistan on Red List? No scientific reason for this discrimination. Only politics coming into play again -- UK cabinet showing clear political proclivity towards India. Unfortunate indeed,” said Human Rights Minister Shireen Mazari on Twitter.

Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry tweeted a link to an online parliamentary petition titled ’Remove Pakistan from red list for travel’. As of Thursday evening, the petition had nearly 82,000 signatures. At 100,000 signatures, the petition can be considered for parliamentary debate.

`Low vaccine coverage behind red list status’

Prominent British solicitor of Pakistani origin Nazir Afzal tweeted, however, that the decision may have been taken after looking at vaccination rates. In Pakistan, about 2.1 per cent of the population is fully vaccinated as compared with 7.9pc in India, 62pc in Qatar and 72pc in UAE.

Afzal remarked that though “Neither [India or Pakistan are] very good, but that’s the difference”.

Covid-19 data expert Tim White said on Twitter that the decision to keep Pakistan on the red list was predictable. “Covid-19 [in Pakistan] is resurgent and today the highest daily total since 24 April, and highest of the new wave so far. 5,661 new cases and 60 more deaths,” White posted.

The UK government considers multiple factors before adding or removing countries to its travel restrictions list, which is widely known as the traffic light system. The factors include the percentage of a country’s population that have been vaccinated; the rate of infection; the prevalence of variants of concern and the country’s access to reliable scientific data and genomic sequencing.

In a conversation with Sky News, Labour MP from Bolton South East, Yasmin Qureshi, said the decision to keep Pakistan on the red list was “absolutely stupid”.

“India is a very big country which we [the UK] want to do deal with,” Qureshi said. “This is why we took so many weeks to put them on the red list in the first place. In comparison, Pakistan is a much smaller country, economic deals are much smaller, so essentially [they] are just being ignored. This is complete discrimination against Pakistan and Turkey which were originally wrongly placed and are still on the red list.

“Pakistan or India are never going to have the vaccination rates of Europe and the UK, as clearly we have more resources. If you look at vaccination equivalence, the India rate is low as well.”

Qureshi added, “I want to say I am pleased that India is on the amber list. I have constituents of Indian heritage and they must be pleased that they can travel. But I also have constituents of Pakistani heritage. I have had so many calls since last night when the announcement was snuck in at 10 pm.”

Qureshi has written a letter to the British Minister Boris Johnson, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps and Health Secretary Sajid Javed demanding an explanation.

Published in Dawn, August 6th, 2021

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