The Government of India has decided to impose what is being termed as 'reciprocal quarantine rules' on travellers coming from the United Kingdom after the United Kingdom declined to reconsider recognising fully vaccinated Indians as such, supposedly due to 'difficulties' with the Indian certification process.
Now, travellers from the UK landing in India will have to show a negative RT-PCR, with the test done not before 72-hours of departure, a Covid-19 RT-PCR test upon arrival at the airport, a Covid-19 RT-PCR test on Day 8 following arrival and a 10-day required quarantine at home or at the destination location.
When British citizens arrive in India, they are already subjected to additional screening. Since the United Kingdom's Covid-19 spike in December 2020, the existing laws have been in force. These included a 7-day quarantine period at home and an RT-PCR test upon arriving at the airport.
But now, the new rules introduced by Indian authorities will be similar to those in the United Kingdom, which increased quarantine to 10 days and required two RT-PCR tests, one upon arrival and one on Day 8.
The upheaval comes after the new British travel restrictions sparked outrage in India, with critics and officials claiming that the Indian certification method, which includes a digital signature and QR code, is significantly more reliable than those used in many other countries, including the United Kingdom.
After this move by India, the British High Commission responded by saying that it was working with the Indian government to make travel “as easy as possible” for Indians. It also added that “UK is continuing to work on expanding the policy to countries and territories across the globe in a phased approach. We are continuing to engage with the Government of India on technical cooperation to expand UK recognition of vaccine certification to people vaccinated by a relevant public health body in India.”
“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. Over 62,500 student visas have been issued in the year ending June 2021, which is an increase of almost 30 per cent as compared to the previous year. We want to make the process of travelling as easy as possible,” it added.
While talking about the British travel guideline issues, during an interview, the Chief Executive of Serum Institute of India (SII), the makers of Covishield, Adar Poonawala said: “It is total chaos. I am calling on all countries to work together, harmoniously, to sign a mutually agreed pact. We can at least acknowledge a certification programme using vaccines approved by the World Health Organization (WHO)."
In Search Of A Solution
Initially, the United Kingdom refused to recognise Covishield, the Indian version of the Oxford- AstraZeneca vaccine, manufactured by the SII. Following India's strong criticism of the decision, the British authorities changed their new guidelines on 22 September to include the vaccine its list of those recognised by the UK government.
However, Indian travellers who had received two doses of Covishield were not exempt from quarantine laws even then. Later, British officials stated that the United Kingdom has concerns about India's vaccine certification procedure, not the Covishield vaccine.
At that time, Alex Ellis, who is the British High Commissioner to India, said that “Covishield is not a problem". He noted: “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."
It was clarified that while the Covishield formulations, created in collaboration with Oxford University, qualified as an "approved" vaccine, the certificates did not. Even as several other countries aim to embrace the underlying technology, British officials have voiced reservations about the reliability of the CoWIN app. However, experts in India have argued that the controversy is unnecessary.
When the whole issue emerged after the British authorities updated travel guidelines, pointing a finger at the CoWIN certificate, R.S. Sharma, the CEO of India’s National Health Authority (NHA) said that there was no need to be concerned because the product was flawless and it was QR code-based, as well as verifiable.
Meanwhile, Gautam Menon, who is a professor of physics and biology at Ashoka University, said that according to him, there is no need for countries to be hesitant about obtaining CoWIN accreditation. The user authentication and certification mechanisms are both tamper-proof.
As part of the efforts to develop a world-class digital vaccination infrastructure, Sharma tweeted on 30 September that India has ensured that the CoWIN accreditation was compliant with WHO regulations. He wrote: “Now, international travellers can download an international version of their certificate that reflects their date of birth from CoWIN.”
In another tweet, explaining the process of personal ID verification required for vaccination, Sharma wrote on 2 October: "Constructive feedback leads to betterment, but distortion of facts only leads to confusion & hysteria."
Even so, it is unclear when the United Kingdom vs India vaccine certification battle will get over or whether the British authorities will highlight further so-called concerns while showing a thumbs up to the travellers from several other countries.
While the World Health Organization in February this year gave SII’s Covishield a green light for the global rollout through the COVAX initiative. India is currently waiting for the UN health agency’s approval for Bharat Biotech’s Covaxin.
As reported, in October 2021, the WHO would take its decision on the Emergency Use Listing or EUL for Covaxin, which is the first made-in-India Covid-19 vaccine.
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