In the midst of a growing outcry in India over its new travel rules, the United Kingdom on Wednesday said there was no problem with the Covishield vaccine and suggested the main issue is COVID-19 vaccine certification done through the CoWIN app, noting that both sides are having discussions at a rapid pace to resolve it.
The UK government has said that COVID-19 vaccine certification from all countries must meet a 'minimum criteria' and that it is working with India on a 'phased approach' to its international travel norms.
Following India's strong criticism over the UK's refusal to recognise Covishield, London on Wednesday amended its new guidelines to include the Indian-made version of the AstraZeneca vaccine in its updated international travel advisory.
But with India's vaccine certification not on a list of 18 approved countries, Indian travellers to the UK will continue to be treated as non-vaccinated and therefore required to quarantine for 10 days on arrival.
Following much confusion over this process, UK government sources said on Wednesday night that additions or changes to the approved country listings are being kept under 'regular consideration', but there was no further clarity on the required criteria for approving a country's vaccine certification.
'As part of our recently expanded inbound vaccination policy, we recognise the following vaccines Pfizer BioNTech, Oxford AstraZeneca, Moderna and Janssen (J&J), for the purposes of international travel. This now includes the formulations AstraZeneca Covishield, AstraZeneca Vaxzevria and Moderna Takeda,' a UK government spokesperson said.
'Our top priority remains protecting public health, and reopening travel in a safe and sustainable way, which is why vaccine certification from all countries must meet the minimum criteria taking into account public health and wider considerations. We continue to work with international partners, including India, to roll out our phased approach,' the spokesperson said.
Travellers who are not fully vaccinated, or vaccinated in a country such as India currently not on the UK government's recognised list, must take a pre-departure test, pay for day two and day eight PCR tests after arrival in England and self-isolate for 10 days, with an option to 'test to release' after five days following a negative PCR test.
With reference to an outcry over India's vaccination certification not being recognised despite Covishield being one of two main COVID-19 vaccines administered in India, UK government sources would only say that the rollout of its inbound vaccination programme to other countries and territories was always intended as a 'phased approach', building on the success of pilots with the US and Europe.
From October 4, England's traffic light system of red, amber and green countries based on levels of COVID-19 risk is to be officially scrapped. However, despite Covishield now being recognised within the UK's eligible vaccine formulations, it would not offer any advantage to Covishield-vaccinated Indian travellers planning a UK visit.
The Indian government has expressed its strong condemnation of such a move and warned of 'reciprocal measures' if vaccinated travellers from India continued to be treated in a 'discriminatory' way.
At a Global COVID summit hosted by US President Joe Biden on Wednesday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi reiterated that international travel should be made easier through 'mutual recognition of vaccine certificates'.
In New Delhi, Alex Ellis, British high commissioner to India, said, 'We're clear Covishield is not a problem. The UK is open to travel and we're already seeing a lot of people going from India to the UK, be it tourists, business people or students.'
The high commissioner said both sides have technical discussions on the issue of certification.
'We have been having detailed technical discussions regarding certification, with the builders of the CoWIN app and the NHS app, about both apps.
'They're happening at a rapid pace, to ensure that both countries mutually recognise the vaccine certificates issued by each other,' he said in a statement.
Ellis said the UK wants to make the process of travelling as easy as possible.
'Over 62,500 student visas have been issued in the year ending June 2021, which is an increase of almost 30 percent as compared to the previous year,' he said.
There is no official reaction by India on the inclusion of Covishield to the approved list of vaccines by the UK.
Asked whether Covishield was added to the list because of strong reactions in India, Ellis said the vaccine is not an issue.
'We listen very carefully to what the Indian government says but ministers have to take decisions and they have been clear that Covishield is not an issue,' he told NDTV.
National Health Authority CEO RS Sharma, however, said he was not aware of any concerns being raised by the UK about COVID vaccine certification by India, asserting that the Co-WIN system is WHO-compliant.
'I am not aware of any concerns being raised by the UK. The British high commissioner met me on September 2 and wanted to know details about the Co-WIN system.
'So we connected their technical team with our technical teams which had two rounds of discussion with the second one being just yesterday.
'They have conveyed to us there is no need for any further discussion as all information has been exchanged between the two parties,' Sharma told PTI.
Referring to the latest guidelines issued by the UK government that will come into effect on October 4, another UK official said that London does not have any problem with the Covishield vaccine but there are certain issues related to vaccine certification in India.
The official said the UK is engaging with the government of India to explore how it could expand its recognition of vaccine certification to people vaccinated by a relevant public health body in India.
Quoting new guidelines, the official said Indian travellers to the UK must follow the 'non-vaccinated rules' set out by the authorities.
Asked whether the UK had doubts about India's vaccine certification process, the British High Commissioner did not give a direct reply and talked about the new travel policy.
'It is a very new policy. It takes a bit of time to work through and what we have learnt in the course of the last 18 months is that what happens in the UK affects India's public health and what happens in India affects the UK's public health because of the fantastic movement of people between the two countries,' he said.
External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar also took up the issue of Covishield-vaccinated travellers being required to quarantine in the UK with newly-appointed British Foreign Secretary Elizabeth Truss at a meeting in New York on Tuesday.
'The UK is committed to opening up international travel again as soon as is practicable and this announcement is a further step to enable people to travel more freely again, in a safe and sustainable way, while protecting public health,' a spokesperson in the British High Commission said.
'We are engaging with the Government of India to explore how we could expand UK recognition of vaccine certification to people vaccinated by a relevant public health body in India,' the official said.