In letter to UK govt, Dr Faisal highlights 'obvious discrepancies' in decision to retain Pakistan on red list

Published August 11, 2021
In this file photo, Special Assistant to the Prime Minister (SAPM) on Health Dr Faisal Sultan addresses the media. — DawnNewsTV/File
In this file photo, Special Assistant to the Prime Minister (SAPM) on Health Dr Faisal Sultan addresses the media. — DawnNewsTV/File

Following the uproar over the United Kingdom's (UK) decision to retain Pakistan on its Covid travel red list while moving India to the amber, Special Assistant to the Prime Minister on Health Dr Faisal Sultan has written a letter to British Health Secretary Sajid Javid, comparing Pakistan's pandemic statistics with those of other countries in the region and pointing out "obvious discrepancies" that highlight the better situation here.

In the letter, shared by Federal Human Rights Minister Shireen Mazari on Twitter, the PM's aide suggested that in order to reduce the health risk associated with travel during the pandemic, the UK may shift attention towards "interventions focused directly on traveller, rather than on other metrics".

He proposed a three-pronged approach — including a "valid proof of having received a WHO (World Health Organisation) approved Covid-19 vaccine, a PCR (polymerase chain reaction) test (72 hours prior to departure) and a rapid antigen test at the airport, pre-departure" — as a measure to curb the risk of virus spread through travel instead of the British government's traffic light system.

The UK operates a traffic light system for international travel, with people from low-risk countries rated green for quarantine-free travel, medium risk countries rated amber and people from red countries requiring arrivals to spend 10 days in isolation in a hotel.

Pakistan was placed on the red list in early April and India on April 19 due to the rising number of cases in the two countries and the emergence of the Delta variant.

In a recent update issued by the British government earlier this month, India, Bahrain, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates were moved to the amber list from August 8 while Pakistan remained on the red list — a move that was also criticised by British lawmakers.

The decision had raised eyebrows, provided that India has been witnessing a significantly higher number of infections than Pakistan, and some had gone on to say that the decision was “political” and not led by scientific data.

Britain, however, has attributed the move to a "combination of deteriorating epidemiological situation, combined with low testing rates and limited genomic surveillance" in Pakistan.

In a statement issued by the UK Department of Health and Social Care — also shared by Mazari on Twitter — the British authorities maintained that the aforementioned factors present "a high risk that an outbreak of a new variant, or existing VoC (variants of concern), will not be identified before it is imported to the UK".

The authorities also raised concern over the "current trajectory of the pandemic in Pakistan", which is currently experiencing a fourth wave of the coronavirus.

Dr Sultan, in his response, maintained that while surveillance data, on which the UK says its decision is based, was "undeniably important", the country's overall track record of managing the pandemic held more significance.

In the letter, Dr Sultan compared Covid-19 statistics of Pakistan with those of India, Iran and Iraq, highlighting that its daily cases per million people, daily deaths per million people and total deaths per million people were the lowest in the region, while daily vaccinations per 100 people was the highest.

The prime minister's aide further contended that tests being done in Pakistan constituted "a large enough sample size to be a sensitive and accurate barometer of the epidemic". He also mentioned other metrics, the data for which he said accurately presented the pandemic situation in the country.

However, he admitted that Pakistan lagged behind the UK in the area of genome sequencing, adding that the results so far had shown that the Delta variant was the dominant strain in the country. But, he also opined that using genomic sequencing as a performance measure and citing it as a reason to deny travel from Pakistan seemed unnecessary.

It "appears to introduce an unnecessarily larger metric, whereas disease security can be reliably achieved via somewhat more targeted measures," he says.

Outlining the salient features of Pakistan's Covid response, Dr Sultan also pointed out that the country's efforts in this regard had been recognised by the United Nations General Assembly President Volkan Bozkir and WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

"Forbes magazine appreciated Pakistan's efforts to tackle pandemic and to stabilise and grow Pakistan's economy and The Economist ranked Pakistan 3rd among the countries for handling the coronavirus pandemic," he added.

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