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COVID-19: The three days in April that may have fuelled UK outbreak of Indian coronavirus variant | UK News

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If the new Indian variant does install itself as the main variant of COVID-19 in this country; if it does lead to more cases and in turn more deaths – and both of those remain big ifs – the question of how this happened is likely to focus on three days in April.

And the spotlight will likely fall not just on the scientists advising the prime minister, but on Boris Johnson himself.

For the decision to delay putting India on the red list of countries, from which travel is heavily limited, and the decision to implement this not immediately but with a gap of just over three days – during which thousands of travellers from India entered the country amid a surge of demand for flights – happened in the shadow of one of the biggest of all political and economic stories of recent decades: Brexit.

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Boris Johnson
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Boris Johnson had been determined to visit India and seal a trade deal

One of the overarching ambitions of this country since leaving the European Union and ending the transition period at the end of last year, has been to seal as many trade deals as possible with as many of the world’s leading economies.

With the arrival of Joe Biden in the White House, ambitions of agreeing a trade deal with the US any time soon were scaled back (the working ambition is now “at some point before the US mid-term elections”) and attention swung to other major economies.

India has long been a promising target for those at the Department for International Trade.

It is not just former colonial ties which make it attractive: Indian companies are now among the biggest investors in the UK and Britain has something of a trump card in these talks: visas.

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How concerning is Indian COVID variant?

The Indian government has often sought to increase the number of visas available to Indian citizens to travel, work and study in the UK. Any travel restrictions remain a sore point. There are other low-hanging fruit too, including a long-standing dispute over Scotch whisky which the EU’s negotiators have failed to resolve in recent years.

Sealing a deal, even a provisional one, with one of the world’s fastest growing and dynamic economies, has long been a goal for the prime minister.

The fact that he might be able to declare victory in the battle over Scotch, and the tantalising prospect of agreeing a deal before the EU – which is also in parallel trade discussions with India – only added to the allure.

All of which is why Mr Johnson had been so determined to make India the destination for his first major foreign visit as prime minister. The trip had originally been slated for January, but was delayed as the UK faced a sharp increase in COVID cases.

It was rearranged for late April, with Mr Johnson due to fly out for meetings and negotiations on April 25.

The working plan was that Mr Johnson would be able to announce that early discussions were now under way about a deal – and that formal negotiations would begin in the autumn. There would be talk of more visas for Indian migrants and of resolving the long-standing impasse on Scotch.

A woman receives oxygen support for free outside a Sikh temple in Ghaziabad, Uttar Pradesh, India
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People have been forced to desperately source their own oxygen during India’s COVID surge

It was to be one of the early “wins” for the PM as he sought to underline the economic opportunities that lay outside the EU.

Yet as the date of the visit approached, the epidemiological data coming out of the Indian subcontinent began to deteriorate. Cases of COVID-19 had been rising fast throughout March, causing concern amid the global public health community.

Data on cases and deaths in India has never been as reliable as the numbers in Europe, with many epidemiologists suspecting vast undercounting of infections and deaths both last year and this. But even this likely undercounted data had begun to show a significant uptick in cases by late March.

By 2 April there was enough disquiet that the UK added the two countries neighbouring India on its east and west, Pakistan and Bangladesh, to its “red list”. Foreign travellers from countries on the list cannot travel to this country; UK and Irish citizens and residents can enter, but must stay in a government-assigned hotel for a 10 day quarantine period.

The goal of this policy is to prevent the entry to the country of any dangerous variants of the disease – and the South African and Brazilian variants were known to be circulating in these countries.

Yet even as Bangladesh and Pakistan were added to the red list (the implementation took place on 9 April), questions were being asked about why India was not joining them.

In early April there were stories about the country’s cemeteries being overwhelmed. In the days following 2 April the number of new cases of COVID-19 rose beyond an average of 100,000 a day, and then over 200,000 a day. Still India remained off the red list.

It is at this period that the UK started to detect an influx of positive COVID-19 cases from India. According to data from Public Health England, of the 3,345 people arriving from India between 25 March and 7 April, 4.8% tested positive for COVID-19. At that stage, the percentage of people in England with COVID-19 was 0.1%.

It was also at this stage that Public Health England began to pick up arrivals of three Indian variants around the UK.

In particular, the most worrying of all those variants, B1.617.2, which is the variant which is spreading most quickly and has now claimed at least four lives, was first detected in tests carried out on travellers arriving from India on the week ending 29 March.

According to PHE data, at least 122 passengers arriving from Delhi and Mumbai between late March and 26 April were carrying this variant, now designated a “variant of concern”. All but a handful of these travellers would have been allowed, under the rules then in place, to leave the airport and travel home, where they were asked to self-isolate.

Even as cases of the new variant were arriving in the UK, concern was growing in Whitehall about why India had still been left off the red list. There is little publicly released data or methodology on most of these decisions, which are technically in the hands of the Joint Biosecurity Centre.

It says it considers a variety of factors, including the prevalence of the disease in given countries and the quality of the infrastructure there. During this period many in the epidemiological community voiced concern about the omission. Some wondered why the government was taking so long.

Two weeks on from the decision to put Pakistan and Bangladesh on the list, there came an answer of sorts.

On the morning of 19 April, Downing Street announced that the prime minister’s trip to India was cancelled. A few hours after news of the cancellation of the prime ministerial visit, Health Secretary Matt Hancock told the House of Commons that India would also be added to the red list.

By then – the afternoon of 19 April – the daily number of new cases in India had surpassed a quarter of a million. Within a couple of days the official numbers – themselves widely believed to be an undercount of reality – would mean this was officially the biggest outbreak in any country during the entire pandemic.

However, the UK’s decision to place India on the red list was not immediate. Instead, three full days and nights would go by before it would be implemented.

These delays are not unusual during the short history of COVID travel restrictions. Invariably when a country is added to the list it is given a period of time – often up to a week – for travellers to make the necessary plans in advance.

However, there is nothing to stop ministers imposing these restrictions far sooner. Indeed, when the hotel quarantine scheme was first announced, Downing Street briefed journalists that countries could be added to the list “at a few hours’ notice”. That did not happen with India.

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23 April: Travellers from India rush back to UK

In the following three days demand for flights between India and the UK shot through the roof.

Travel website Skyscanner reported a 250% leap in searches for flights from India to the UK. There are typically 30 such flights a week.

In those days, four airlines requested to operate an extra eight flights from India due to the surge in demand ahead of the implementation of the hotel quarantine. The requests were turned down, but thousands of passengers nonetheless travelled into the UK.

Even before this three-day period, the proportion of cases of B 1.617.2 imported from India had been on the rise. But between 4 April and 2 May, this variant rose from 4.9% of all cases detected among travellers, to 40.9%.

The single biggest increase in these weekly numbers was the week which included the three and a half days between the afternoon of 19 April and the early morning of 23 April.

It is worth underlining that it is still much too early to say whether the B 1.617.2 will indeed change the course of the pandemic in the UK. It is certainly spreading faster than any other variant of concern since the famous Kent variant which established itself as the dominant strain of the virus in the winter.

However it remains a small fraction of the total of cases, which are themselves small in comparison with recent months.

People line up outside a mobile vaccination centre, amid the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Bolton, Britain, May 13, 2021. REUTERS/Phil Noble
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Surge testing is under way in towns where the variant has taken hold

As of 5 May, the percentage of people in England with any variant of COVID-19 had dropped to just 0.07%, the lowest level since early September, according to data from the Office for National Statistics. Hospitalisations, deaths and case numbers remain low.

However, cases are growing fast in a few areas where the Indian variant seems to have established itself, including Bolton, Blackburn and Leicester. By contrast, a cluster of cases in London seems to be under control.

It is too early to tell whether this presages the beginning of another spread throughout the country.

However, one factor is decisively different from the winter or indeed last year: the majority of UK citizens have now received a first dose of a vaccine, and the early evidence suggests, tentatively, that these vaccines provide adequate protection against this new variant.

Outside of India, there are few countries other than the UK that have quite so many confirmed cases of B1.617.2 – though this may owe itself partly to the fact that this country carries out more gene sequencing than any other country.

Even so, if the Indian variant establishes itself as the dominant strain in the UK, jeopardising the sacrifices and suffering during a third period of lockdown, the prime minister will come under increased scrutiny to answer why the decision was left so late to impose restrictions on travel from India, why travellers were given an extra three and a half days to come to the UK and why the rationale on which country is on or off these travel lists remains so murky.

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Euro 2020: Why no Scotland players have to isolate after Gilmour contracts COVID – but England pair do | UK News

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Confusion arose over the decision to force England footballers Mason Mount and Ben Chilwell to isolate after Scotland player Billy Gilmour tested positive for COVID-19.

The England duo must isolate until Monday after being deemed “close contacts” of their Chelsea teammate Gilmour when the Three Lions played Scotland on Friday.

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Ben Chilwell (L) and Mason Mount are having to self-isolate
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Ben Chilwell (L) and Mason Mount

But questions were raised over why Mount and Chilwell were affected after the entire England squad tested negative for COVID-19 on Monday, while no other Scotland player has been ruled out of their final Euro 2020 group game on Tuesday as a result of Gilmour’s infection.

As Euro 2020 is played in multiple countries against the backdrop of the pandemic, strict rules are in force to try to ensure the tournament is not disrupted.

So what happens when players test positive for COVID, could matches be abandoned as a result, and what steps are being taken to avoid outbreaks? Sky News explains.

What were the concerns about Mount and Chilwell’s contact with Gilmour?

Mount, Chilwell and Gilmour were seen embracing at the end of England’s match with Scotland at Wembley on Friday evening.

However, it is understood the contact that caused most concern was a 25-minute conversation between the three players in the tunnel following the game.

Billy Gilmour (left) and Mason Mount
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Billy Gilmour (L) and Mason Mount during the England v Scotland match on Friday

The Chelsea trio had not seen each other since returning to London after they won the Champions League final in Porto on 29 May.

Government guidance states that close contacts of COVID cases include people who had face-to-face conversations within one-metre, and anyone who was within two-metres for more than 15 minutes.

The FA said the decision for Chilwell and Mount to isolate was taken in consultation with Public Health England.

The two players are now isolating and training individually in private areas at England’s training base St George’s Park.

Ben Chilwell during a training session last week
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Ben Chilwell is now having to self-isolate

How long do players with COVID have to isolate?

Players at Euro 2020 are tested regularly, and those who are positive must self-isolate for 10 days.

Any other players or staff deemed to have been in close contact with someone with COVID during the tournament also have to isolate for 10 days.

It means Gilmour will be unavailable for Scotland’s final group match against Croatia tonight. If they progress, he will also miss their last-16 tie, Sky Sports News understands.

FILE PHOTO: Soccer Football - Euro 2020 - Group D - England v Scotland - Wembley Stadium, London, Britain - June 18, 2021 Scotland's Billy Gilmour celebrates after the match Pool via REUTERS/Facundo Arrizabalaga/File Photo
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Billy Gilmour will miss Scotland’s final group game and last 16-tie if they progress

The Scottish FA and Public Health England are said to be satisfied that Gilmour had “no close contact issues” with any other member of the Scotland squad.

The isolation period for close contacts of COVID cases includes the date of their last contact and the next 10 full days, according to government guidance.

Mount and Chilwell, who came into contact with Gilmour on 18 June, must now isolate until Monday 28 June.

With England already through to the knockout stages of the tournament, it means Mount and Chilwell could miss their last-16 tie, with the round being played on 26, 27, 28 and 29 June.

Could matches be abandoned due to a COVID outbreak in a squad?

Euro 2020 squads were expanded from 23 players to 26 to account for the chance that some teams could be hit by COVID outbreaks.

If multiple players have to isolate, matches will still go ahead providing the team can name 13 players in their squad – a minimum of 12 outfield players plus one goalkeeper.

If a team cannot named 13 players in their squad, the game can be postponed by up to 48 hours.

If the affected team still cannot meet the minimum requirements for a matchday squad, they will forfeit the game and suffer an automatic 3-0 defeat.

Both teams line up to sing their national anthems. Pic: AP
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If a team cannot field 13 players in their squad, the match can be postponed. Pic: AP

Can players who contract COVID be replaced?

Outfield players cannot be changed but UEFA states that “goalkeepers can be replaced during the tournament in the event of physical incapacity, even if one or two goalkeepers in the squad are still available”.

Players that have been replaced cannot then return to the squad.

Can players see their families during the tournament?

UEFA has banned families visiting players at their training camps during Euro 2020.

England manager Gareth Southgate had hoped that players would be able to see family members at their St George’s Park training base, but UEFA’s strict COVID bubble rules forbid it.

“We’re not going to be able to let people in,” Southgate said before the tournament.

“There’s a clear edict from UEFA on what the bubbles need to look like to be as secure as we can make them, it’s never going to be 100% failsafe but we’ve got to comply with as much as we can.”

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Afghan interpreters who worked with British military land in UK today after fleeing Taliban | World News

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The first group of former Afghan interpreters whose lives are in danger because they worked for the British military are due to arrive in the UK from Afghanistan in the coming hours under a new government scheme, Sky News understands.

An aircraft reportedly carrying more than a dozen Afghans who were employed by UK forces, as well as family members, is expected to land at an airport in the Midlands later on Tuesday.

The Ministry of Defence (MoD) declined to comment on the flight – first reported by the Daily Mail – because of security concerns for the men, women and children who have asked to flee Afghanistan after receiving threats from the Taliban.

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Afghan nationals given chance to live in UK

Taliban militants are growing in strength across the country, regaining more territory from the UK and US-backed Afghan government. It comes as British, US and other NATO forces prepare to withdraw over the next three months following almost 20 years of conflict.

The Taliban views anyone associated with the US and NATO-led mission in Afghanistan as a traitor who deserves to die.

The increased influence of the militant group means a corresponding risk for such personnel.

Concerns over the safety of former staff, most of them interpreters, prompted the MoD and the Home Office in May to expand the eligibility criteria of a relocation scheme for Afghans seeking to flee.

Previously, the government had resisted pressure to allow large numbers of men and women to relocate, saying such a move would deprive Afghanistan of a talented pool of young individuals, vital for the future prosperity of the country.

More than 3,000 Afghans are expected to take advantage of the offer, on top of some 1,300 who have already made the journey under a previous, more restrictive policy. They are expected to be flown to the UK in groups.

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‘It’s the right thing to do’ – Defence secretary

It is understood that the first flight left Kabul earlier on Tuesday. Everyone had to undergo stringent security as well as COVID-related health checks.

Afghanistan is on the red list of countries, which means the group will be put into quarantine upon their arrival in the UK.

The Daily Mail spoke to a 37-year-old former interpreter called Hash, who served in Helmand with the Army between 2007 and 2012 and is reported to be part of the first party along with his wife and two sons.

“We are so happy and so thankful,” he was quoted as saying. “The British government has taken its time but it has done the right thing and we are truly grateful.”

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Aston Martin sues Swiss car dealer over deposits on £2.5m Valkyrie model | Business News

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Aston Martin is suing a Swiss car dealer which it claims failed to hand over customer deposits for its £2.5m Valkyrie supercar.

The luxury vehicle maker said civil proceedings had been filed against Nebula Project and that, backed by some of its customers, it was asking prosecutors to consider a criminal investigation.

Aston Martin said the saga was expected to dent annual profits by £15m as it tries to recoup the money.

General view of an Aston Martin logo on the bonnet of an Aston Martin Rapide.
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UK-based Aston Martin is famous for making cars driven by James Bond

It said it was fully committed to customers receiving delivery of their supercars on schedule despite not having received the deposited funds.

The company added that it was on track to make its first deliveries of the Valkyrie – a limited edition supercar which uses Formula One technology – in the second half of this year.

It said in future it would take deposits for “special vehicles” directly and not through a third party.

Nebula had signed an agreement in 2016 to help finance the Valkyrie, which would have entitled it to potentially “significant” royalty payments as they rolled off the production line, alongside commission on sales of Valhalla and Vanquish models – but this has now been terminated, Aston Martin said.

The deal had been signed at a time when the carmaker was struggling financially.

Aston Martin also said that it was scrapping dealership arrangements with AF Cars, a company operating in Switzerland with the same board members as Nebula, “after learning that vehicles have been sold in breach of terms of the dealership agreement”.

Aston Martin, famous as the maker of cars driven by fictional spy James Bond, said that aside from the “short term negative financial impact” of this issue, it was on course to meet financial guidance for 2021.

An Aston Martin Valkyrie car is seen during the 87th International Motor Show at Palexpo in Geneva, Switzerland March 8, 2017.
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Aston Martin said in future it would take deposits directly

Reuters news agency reported that Nebula and one of its board members, Andreas Baenziger, did not respond immediately to emailed requests for comment.

Florian Kamelger, another board member, said in an email that Nebula would release a statement later on Tuesday, Reuters reported.

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