‘Looking at it urgently,’ says UK envoy on vaccine certification for India
The British government on Wednesday included India’s Covishield in a list of approved Covid-19 jabs though the two sides are yet to reach common ground on certification so that fully vaccinated Indian travellers to the UK can avoid quarantine.
The two countries are locked in a vaccine row as Indian nationals who have received both doses of Covishield, the local variant of Britain’s AstraZeneca vaccine, will be considered as unvaccinated and have to quarantine for 10 days under new British travel rules that come into force on October 4.
UK high commissioner Alex Ellis attributed the matter to a significant shift in his country’s travel policy that was announced only on September 17 and made it clear that “Covishield is not the issue”. Talking to NDTV news channel, he declined to set a deadline for resolving the issue but said Britain is “looking at it urgently”.
Early on Wednesday, the UK updated its travel guidance to include Covishield among the list of approved vaccines, along with the AstraZeneca, Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson jabs and their formulations. A spokesperson for the UK mission reiterated that Britain is engaging with India to expand British recognition of Indian vaccine certification.
India and the UK have held several meetings and discussions between technical experts since the beginning of this month, the latest being on Tuesday, to bridge differences over vaccine certification, people familiar with developments said on condition of anonymity.
These discussions focused on certification done through India’s CoWIN app, the security of the system, data sharing between the two sides, and reconciling the CoWIN system with the NHS Covid Pass developed by Britain’s National Health Service, the people said.
There were also some concerns about the security of the certification system, the people said without going into details.
Ellis said the UK was shifting its travel policy from being country-focused with red, amber and green lists to a single list that combines incidents of Covid-19 and vaccination. India was on the amber list of countries. Over the last couple of weeks, there were detailed conversations between builders of the Indian and UK apps that covered their working and security protocols, he said.
The UK has to “have confidence” in the Indian app as the movement of people from both countries could affect public health, he said.
“It’s not a question of doubt, it’s a question of the normal processes which technical experts go through in order to [have] the assurances on both sides about how our certification works,” Ellis said.
“We are moving at great speed to try and resolve any outstanding questions with India so we can give the best possible advice for ministers to take a decision, and which they will want to do quickly,” he added.
National Health Authority CEO RS Sharma, whose organisation operates the CoWIN app, told CNBC-News18 that technical discussions between the two sides were closed, and the Indian side had “not encountered any concerns” during talks. Sharma said he had met the British envoy on September 2 to discuss the matter.
India’s vaccine certificate is digitally verifiable as it contains an encrypted QR code with the private key of the department. Any QR code reader with the Indian key will be able to establish the authenticity of the certificate, Sharma said. CoWIN uses established global encryption standards that satisfy the World Health Organization’s standards, he said.
On Tuesday, India urged the UK to change its policy requiring visiting Indian nationals to quarantine even if they are fully vaccinated, describing it as discriminatory, and foreign secretary Harsh Shringla warned New Delhi could impose “reciprocal measures” against countries that don’t accept Indian vaccine certification.
The issue was also raised by external affairs minister S Jaishankar at a meeting with his British counterpart Liz Truss on the margins of the UN General Assembly in New York on Monday.
However, Ellis played down the prospect of the issue affecting bilateral ties and said the matter had emerged because of the large number of people travelling to the UK. He noted Britain had issued 65,000 student visas this year, up 30% from last year.