With post Brexit trade talks coming to an end and a surge in Covid-19 cases, India looks more important than ever as a trading partner for the UK.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has cancelled his planned trip to India for later this month, citing the need to oversee the pandemic response at home.
“The prime minister spoke to (Indian) Prime Minister Modi this morning, to express his regret that he will be unable to visit India later this month as planned,” a Downing Street spokeswoman said.
“In light of the national lockdown announced last night, 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 announcement comes at the back of Britain’s worsening COVID-19 crisis, brought on by a more transmissible variant of the coronavirus. The New year saw a new surge in cases, with hospital admissions hitting a new high, fuelled by the spread.
The country began its third COVID-19 lockdown on Tuesday with citizens under orders to stay at home and the government calling for one last major national effort to stem the virus before mass vaccinations are rolled out. Britain has been among the worst hit countries in terms of COVID-19, with the second highest death toll in Europe and an economy that suffered the sharpest contraction of any in the Group of Seven during the first wave of infections last spring.
Currently approx. 27,000 people are in hospital with COVID in England, 40 percent more than during the first peak in April, with infection numbers still expected to rise further after increased socialising during the Christmas period. Since the start of the pandemic, more than 75,000 people have died in the United Kingdom within 28 days of testing positive for coronavirus, according to official figures.
Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak’s latest package of grants adds to the 280 billion pounds in government support already announced for this financial year to stave off total economic collapse.
“This will help businesses to get through the months ahead – and crucially it will help sustain jobs, so workers can be ready to return when they are able to reopen,” Sunak in a statement.
The new lockdown is likely to cause the economy to shrink again, though not by as much as the huge shock caused by the first one in spring 2020.
JP Morgan economist Allan Monks said he was now expecting the economy to shrink by 2.5% in the first quarter of 2021 — compared with almost 20% in the April-June period of last year.
More than a million people in Britain have already received their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.
The government aims to vaccinate all elderly care home residents and their carers, everyone over the age of 70, all frontline health and social care workers, and everyone who is clinically extremely vulnerable, by mid-February.
But senior minister Michael Gove urged caution in terms of when that might translate into an easing of restrictions.
“We’ll be able to review the progress that we’ve made on the 15th of February … and we hope that we’ll be able to progressively lift restrictions after that, but what I can’t do is predict, nobody can predict with accuracy what we will be able to relax and when,” he said on Sky News.
Last month, the government had announced Johnson’s intention to visit India as part of efforts to speed up talks on trade, with Britain in search of new bilateral deals after leaving the European Union. The trip, which was scheduled to coincide with the India’s Republic day, was expected to be key to furthering talks on a possible India-UK FTA.
The UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab’s visit to India earlier last month was in many ways a precursor to the series of high-level talks around closer cooperation and engagement around trade and investment, defence and security, health and climate change. After a meeting with Indian Minister of External Affairs, Raab spoke to the media: “We agreed on the key elements of a 10-year UK-India roadmap so that we can deliver a step change in ambition for the relationship between our two countries. “We look forward to taking this forward in 2021 – including through the UK’s Presidency of the G7 and also our Presidency of the UN Climate Change Conference, and as we see and welcome India return to the UN Security Council.”
With post Brexit trade talks coming to an end this month, the UK is now actively looking to increase engagement with ‘like-minded nations’ such as India. With Johnson even touting 2021 to be a year to “deepen and strengthen the UK-India relationship”. The strain of the rising levels of infection in the UK will only propel this need further. The UK and India already have a strong relationship based on co-operation across key strategic areas from trade and investment, healthcare defence, their interests in the Indo-Pacific to addressing climate change and boosting innovation. Already the new virtual hub of experts from India and the UK launched during Raab’s visit last month has proved both timely and crucial in delivering vaccines for coronavirus and other deadly viruses.
The 10-year UK-India roadmap couldn’t come at a better time.