Anger, confusion spread over UK’s new COVID travel rules

International

People watch others arrive to receive the COVID-19 vaccine at a government-run hospital in New Delhi, India, Tuesday, Sept. 21, 2021. Travelers and authorities from India and many African countries are furious — and confused — about Britain’s new COVID-19 travel rules, calling them discriminatory, as experts warn the measures could fuel misinformation about vaccines in countries in some of the world’s least vaccinated countries. (AP Photo/Manish Swarup)

NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) — Travelers and authorities from India and some African countries are furious — and confused — about Britain’s new COVID-19 travel rules, calling them discriminatory.

The British government announced what it billed as a simplification of the rules last week, including allowing fully vaccinated travelers arriving in England from much of the world to skip quarantine and take fewer tests.

But the fine print on who was considered “fully vaccinated” is proving far more complicated. In order to skip self-isolation, travelers must have received a vaccine under the American, British or European programs or have received a U.K.-authorized shot from an approved health body. Bodies in more than a dozen countries in Asia, the Caribbean and the Middle East made it to the list — but India’s did not, nor did any in Africa.

Countries like Kenya, which has received hundreds of thousands of doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine from the U.K. itself, were left wondering why their vaccination programs don’t appear to be good enough in the eyes of the British government. That’s leading to concerns that the rules could exacerbate already worrying vaccine hesitancy in Africa as some people question whether the doses available there don’t measure up.

Kenya’s government noticed “significant public concern” in the wake of the new rules. South African Medical Association chairwoman Dr. Angelique Coetzee said citizens were being “discriminated against” and it’s “totally unacceptable.” South African authorities objected not only to the new quarantine rules but also to the fact that the country remains on the U.K.’s so-called red list, from which all travel is severely restricted.

The Hindustan Times, one of India’s leading English-language dailies, called the decision “illogical and harmful” in an editorial.

Shashi Tharoor, a leader of India’s main opposition Congress party, said he had canceled his upcoming book tour of Britain in protest. “Why should Indians be deemed to be lesser breeds than others?” he wrote Tuesday on The Quint news website.

The U.K. Department for Transport, which issued the rules, didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. But since the initial furor, Britain has walked back one aspect that caused particular consternation: Doses of AstraZeneca made in India, known as Covishield, were initially not on the list of approved vaccines. The Indian-made product hasn’t been formally authorized by U.K. regulators, although some doses have been used in Britain — and millions were shipped to low- and middle-income country.

Covishield was added to the U.K.’s list of approved vaccines for travelers on Wednesday, but the group of approved public health bodies remained unchanged — meaning the practical effect of the move is limited. Outrage over Covishield was particularly pointed in India, where the vast majority of people have been vaccinated with the shot.

Before Covishield was added to Britain’s travel list, Indian Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla told reporters this week: “We understand that this has been used in (Britain’s) National Health System and therefore non-recognition of Covishield is a discriminatory policy.”

Shringla said the rules, which take effect next month, could force India to “impose reciprocal measures” if the issue isn’t resolved.

The government has yet to officially comment on the change, but even after it, outrage continued to pour out from Indians on social media.

“India’s digital certification is far more reliable than other countries’ manual system. Is UK trying to make money on PCR tests?” tweeted Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, founder of Indian pharmaceutical company Biocon.

For African nations, the new U.K. rules are a setback after a glimmer of hope following India’s announcement this week that it will resume exports and donations of surplus coronavirus vaccines in October — after a monthslong freeze because of a surge in domestic infections.

Less than 4% of Africa’s population of 1.3 billion is fully vaccinated, and many have looked on with dismay as richer countries stockpile doses and discuss giving third shots to their populations.

Beyond supply issues, many African countries are struggling with vaccine hesitancy as misinformation swirls about the shots.

Kenya’s health minister and the British ambassador to Kenya issued a joint statement on Tuesday that appeared aimed at allaying the latest concerns.

“We want to make it clear that both the U.K. and Kenya recognize vaccines administered in both countries,” specifically AstraZeneca, Moderna, Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson, they said.

However, “establishing a system to mutually recognize each other’s vaccine certificates for a vaccine passport program takes time,” they said, adding that neither country had completed the process.

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Kirka reported from London and Saaliq from New Delhi. Associated Press writers Mogomotsi Magome in Johannesburg and Gerald Imray in Cape Town, South Africa, contributed.

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