British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has cancelled a trip to India scheduled for later this month, citing the need to oversee the COVID-19 pandemic response in the United Kingdom.
Johnson informed Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi of the change of plans on Tuesday, a day after announcing the start of a new national lockdown in England, a spokeswoman for his office said.
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“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 spokeswoman said.
“The prime minister said that he hopes to be able to visit India in the first half of 2021, and ahead of the UK’s G7 Summit that Prime Minister Modi is due to attend as a guest.”
Last month, the government announced Johnson’s intention to visit India as part of efforts to speed up talks on trade, with the UK in search of new bilateral deals after leaving the European Union.
But the country’s COVID-19 crisis has since worsened dramatically with surging cases and hospital admissions at a new high, fuelled by the spread of a more transmissible variant.
Under the new lockdown – the UK’s third – most people must work from home, schools have closed for almost all students, and hospitality venues, as well as non-essential shops, must stay shut.
In a televised address on Monday, Johnson warned the UK is at “a critical moment”, with cases rising sharply in every part of the country.
“As I speak to you tonight, our hospitals are under more pressure from COVID than any time since the start of the pandemic,” Johnson said as he ditched his regional approach to fighting the pandemic.
“With most of the country already under extreme measures, it’s clear that we need to do more together to bring this new variant under control.”
More than 75,000 people in the UK have died from COVID-19 within 28 days of a positive test since the start of the pandemic.
A record 58,784 new cases of the coronavirus were reported on Monday.
Al Jazeera’s Andrew Simmons, reporting from London, described the mood in the country as “pretty gloomy” amid the spiralling caseload.
“People are really worried,” he said. “We will see this whole lockdown remain in place until at least mid-February.
“One minister suggested it could go well into March and even longer with some of the restrictions. The plan will be to relax restrictions gradually, but this is going towards spring.”