Pandemic, lockdowns and a vaccine tie-up boost for India-UK ties

The SII and Oxford University partnership demonstrates the UK-India relationship at its best, UK Foreign Minister Dominic Raab had said
Last Updated 21 December 2020, 07:35 IST

The Covid-19 pandemic, a cycle of lockdowns to control the spread of a deadly virus and the havoc it wreaked on global health and economy is the inescapable defining feature of the year 2020. However, a glimmer of hope that 2021 could be healthier came in the form of "safe and effective" vaccines in human trials, with one of them symbolising a real boost to India-UK relations.

"The Serum Institute and Oxford University partnership demonstrates the UK-India relationship at its best: a vaccine developed in the UK and made in India; drawing our brightest minds together to save lives as a global force for good," declared UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, during his official visit to India in December – a rarity in a year of largely virtual visits.

While the Oxford vaccine awaits regulatory clearance for mass vaccination, the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine began its rollout in the UK on Vaccine Day (V-Day) December 8, when 87-year-old Dr Hari Shukla and his wife Ranjan, 83, became the world’s first Indian-origin recipients of a jab against Covid-19.

The moment signalled the beginning of the end of a crisis-ridden year which even led the ‘Oxford English Dictionary’ to transform its Word of the Year into ‘Words of an Unprecedented Year’ to incorporate all the pandemic-induced vocabulary – lockdown, WFH (work from home), support bubbles, key workers, furlough, circuit-breaker and more.

Furlough was the life raft thrown by the UK’s first-ever Indian-origin Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak, who delivered serial budgets as he led the UK’s economic response to the lockdowns.

The offer for businesses to put staff on government-backed enforced leave instead of mass redundancies and several support schemes have been widely hailed a success story of a difficult year, sending Sunak’s popularity ratings soaring.

"No, definitely not. Seeing what the Prime Minister has to deal with, this is a job hard enough for me to do," he said, in response to a question about whether he is ready to move next door to No. 10 from No. 11 Downing Street – where the 40-year-old minister also made history by lighting Diwali diyas on one of London’s most famous streets.

And, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson did have a lot to deal with, what with his pursuit of an "oven-ready" Brexit deal which has proved anything but ready, to his engagement with partner Carrie Symonds in February and then becoming a father to their baby boy Wilfred in May.

However, the pandemic disrupted any celebrations as Johnson tested positive for Covid-19 just weeks after the engagement announcement and then had to be rushed to the intensive care unit until his recovery a week later in April.

It was during these early weeks of the pandemic in the UK when the panic was its worst as several high-profile figures went into self-isolation after testing positive, including Prince Charles.

In other royal news, 2020 began with his younger son and Queen Elizabeth II’s grandson, Prince Harry, and his ex-actress wife Meghan Markle stepping down as frontline royals and relocating to the US with their baby son Archie.

It triggered much media speculation around the rift it had caused with older brother Prince William, who also tested positive for COVID-19 during the first wave but kept it under wraps until much later in the year.

Several studies also pointed to a particularly adverse impact of coronavirus on people from ethnic minorities, including Indians. An official review was set up, which indicated that higher levels of comorbidities in this section of the population, such as diabetes, was the likely factor.

On the National Health Service frontlines, an Indian-origin doctor couple - Nishant Joshi and Meenal Viz - took the government to court over safety issues around personal protective equipment for doctors and healthcare workers, also in the high-risk category.

Their case will come up in the New Year, as will some of the high-profile Indian extradition cases, including a ruling expected in the case of Nirav Modi, wanted in the Punjab National Bank scam case.

While wanted cricket bookie Sanjeev Chawla marked the first high-profile extradition of its kind under the India-UK Extradition Treaty when he was sent back to India in February, the case of former Kingfisher Airlines boss Vijay Mallya, wanted on fraud and money laundering charges in India, remains stuck in a "confidential" legal wrangle after he exhausted all his UK court appeals against extradition in May.

The pandemic may have had the impact of pushing all other developments and news to the periphery but one development that remains in focus is Brexit and Britain’s future as a non-member of the European Union (EU).

With the transition phase agreed under the UK-EU divorce pact coming to an end on December 31, major divergences remain in the path to a post-Brexit trade pact. Deal or no deal, the early months of 2021 will be ones to watch for the impact it would have on an already bruised and battered economy.

While that remains a big unknown as the year comes to a close, one of the few knowns is that 2021 is expected to be a significant one for India-UK relations with Johnson accepting Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s invitation to be the chief guest at the Republic Day parade.

His first major bilateral visit since assuming office as UK Prime Minister and Brexit is a symbolism that is not lost – as the UK exits the 27-member economic, India is the first stop on the new Global Britain agenda.

(Published 21 December 2020, 07:35 IST)

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