Strategic expert Alex Ellis will take charge as the new British High Commissioner to India even as the UK Prime Minister was forced to postpone his planned India visit in January 2021.
Boris Johnson spoke to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to express his regret that he would have to postpone his planned visit to India for Republic Day on January 26 in order to focus on the mounting domestic crisis of accelerating coronavirus infections, which has plunged the UK into yet another complete lockdown.
A No. 10 Downing Street spokesperson said: “The Prime Minister spoke to Prime Minister Modi to express his regret that he will be unable to visit India later this month as planned.
“In light of the national lockdown, and the speed at which the new coronavirus variant is spreading, the Prime Minister said that it was important for him to remain in the UK so he can focus on the domestic response to the virus.”
The two leaders, however, underlined their “shared commitment” to the bilateral relationship, and to continuing to build on the close collaboration between the UK and India – including in their response to the pandemic which has crippled the global economy.
Johnson has indicated that he hopes to be able to visit India in the first half of 2021 and hopes to make the visit ahead of the G7 Summit presided over by the UK, which Modi is due to attend as a guest.
While accepting Modi’s invitation last year, Johnson had extended a formal invite to the Indian Prime Minister to attend the UK’s G7 Summit as one of three guest nations alongside South Korea and Australia – with a focus on his declared ambition to work with a group of “like-minded democracies” to advance shared interests and tackle common challenges.
But with the visit now being put on the back burner, it will be down to the new British High Commissioner to India, Alex Ellis, to carry forward some of that groundwork for what is a big year for the UK – as it not only assumes the presidency of the G7 but also the United Nations COP26 climate summit.
Ellis brings a wealth of experience to his new diplomatic posting, having served as Deputy National Security Adviser in the UK Cabinet Office for the government’s Integrated Review on diplomacy, development and defence. In his New Delhi based role, he will succeed Sir Philip Barton, who moved back to the UK last year to take charge of the newly expanded Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) as its Permanent Under-Secretary.
The 53-year-old is described as having extensive experience in security issues and strategy, including as Director General responsible for the UK and European Union (EU) security partnership, international agreements with the UK’s closest partners and domestic and EU engagement on Brexit in the erstwhile Department for Exiting the European Union (DExEU).
The career diplomat has also served as British Ambassador to Brazil between 2013 and 2017 and as ambassador to Portugal between 2007 and 10. Besides, Ellis was also Director of Strategy in the Foreign Office, responsible for developing new tools for improving FCO and government policy.
In December, Johnson had written to Modi to formally accept his invitation to visit India as the Chief Guest of the Republic Day parade, which was to mark his first major bilateral visit since taking office last year and the first since Britain’s exit from the EU.
“I am absolutely delighted to be visiting India next year at the start of an exciting year for Global Britain, and look forward to delivering the quantum leap in our bilateral relationship that Prime Minister Modi and I have pledged to achieve,” the UK PM said at the time.
“As a key player in the Indo-Pacific region, India is an increasingly indispensable partner for the United Kingdom as we work to boost jobs and growth, confront shared threats to our security and protect our planet,” he said.
It came before UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab’s tour of India ahead of the prime ministerial level talks. Healthcare was among the key sectors of focus for the visit, including cooperation in the field of coronavirus vaccines.
“As the ‘pharmacy of the world’ India supplies more than 50 per cent of the world’s vaccines, with over a billion doses of the UK’s Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine being manufactured at India’s Serum Institute in Pune,” Downing Street had said when confirming the planned India visit.
Trade and investment, defence and security and climate change are among the other priority areas identified and while the prime ministerial visit may have been delayed, the goal of closer cooperation will remain very much on top of the agenda for both countries.