India calls British Covid-19 vaccine rule 'discriminatory', warns of reciprocal measures

In a revised advisory, Britain said travellers from India who were inoculated with the Covishield vaccine would still be put on a 10-day quarantine. PHOTO: AFP

NEW DELHI - India has criticised as "discriminatory" Britain's decision to consider travellers from the country who received the Covishield vaccine as unvaccinated, with New Delhi warning of reciprocal measures in a controversy between two otherwise friendly nations.

In a revised travel advisory on Sept 17, Britain did not exempt vaccinated travellers from India from a 10-day quarantine or Covid-19 tests.

The move came as Britain expanded the list of countries whose vaccines it recognised and people who were fully vaccinated need not be quarantined, but India is not on the list.

The Covishield vaccine, developed by British-Swedish company AstraZeneca and manufactured in India by Serum Institute, is identical to the doses given to millions of Britons.

Indian foreign secretary Harsh V Shringla said at a briefing on Tuesday (Sept 21): "The basic issue is that here is a vaccine, Covishield, which is a licensed product of a UK company manufactured in India of which we have supplied 5 million doses to the UK at the request of the UK government."

"We understand this has been used in the national health system, and therefore non-recognition of Covishield is a discriminatory policy."

He warned that India would have to look at reciprocal measures, though he said the country had received some assurances but did not specify what these were.

"We have also offered some of our partner countries mutual recognition of vaccine certification but these are reciprocal measures... if we don't get a satisfactory response, (it) will be within our rights to impose reciprocal measures, '' he said.

External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar, who is in New York to attend the United Nations General Assembly, took up the issue with British Foreign Secretary Elizabeth Truss. "Urged early resolution of quarantine issue in mutual interest," tweeted Dr Jaishankar.

The recognition of vaccines is seen to be a crucial element as international travel has started to open up. With scores of Indians travelling to Britain for studies, work or even holidays, non-recognition of vaccines will complicate travel plans.

Besides the 10-day quarantine, travellers from India will also need to do a pre-departure Covid-19 test and another two tests after arrival.

The reaction within India has been particularly sharp, as the two countries share close people-to-people contacts.

According to Britain's Office for National Statistics, some 37,500 Indian students, the highest of any nationality, received a Tier 4 or study visa in 2019.

Congress leader Jairam Ramesh said the decision "smacked of racism" and called it " bizarre", while his party colleague Shashi Tharoor said he had cancelled his engagements in Britain.

"It is offensive to ask fully vaccinated Indians to quarantine. The Brits are reviewing!," tweeted Dr Tharoor.

Some analysts noted that Britain would have a domestic issue if India decides to reciprocate.

"British Indians/OCI cardholders form bulk of travellers to India. They will make ruckus if we reciprocate," tweeted former foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal. OCI is the Overseas Citizenship of India, a type of permanent residency for foreign nationals of Indian origin.

Getting vaccine recognition has been an evolving process and differs from country to country. Some 18 European Union countries recognise Covishield.

But for Indians, travel has also been complicated as Covaxin, the indigenous vaccine made by Bharat Biotech, is yet to get the World Health Organisation's (WHO) approval for the emergency use authorisation.

Indian media reports said the approval would come up for discussion on Oct 5.

"We have responded to any clarifications sought by WHO and are awaiting further feedback," said Bharat Biotech in a recent statement, declining to comment on the approval process and its timelines.

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