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Boris Johnson has had a furious row with Keir Starmer at PMQs about when he knew the Delta variant was flooding into Britain.
The Prime Minister denied the Labour leader’s claims that keeping the borders open “contributed to the spread” – and led to a lockdown delay.
Mr Johnson said the variant first seen in India was only identified on April 28 – five days AFTER he put India on the red list.
And the strain now called the Delta variant was only made a “variant of concern” just over a week later on May 7, the PM said.
Sir Keir said India should have gone on the red list on April 1, adding: “If that had happened we wouldn’t have the Delta variant here – it is as simple as that.”
He added: “Now we’re told July 19 is terminus day. The British people don’t expect miracles but they do expect basic competence and honesty.”
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But the furious Tory leader told Prime Minister’s Questions: “I think Captain Hindsight needs to adjust his retrospectoscope because he's completely wrong.
"We put India on the red list on April 23, and the Delta variant was not so identified until April 28 – and was only identified as a variant of concern on May 7.
"When he criticises this Government for wanting to keep our borders open, just remember that he voted 43 times in the last five years to ensure that our border controls were kept in the hands of Brussels."
So, is the Prime Minister right? Technically, yes.
But is what he’s saying the whole story? No.
The crucial point here is the context, and the difference between two variants – B.1.617.1, and B.1.617.2 – which are similar and both from India.
“I think Captain Hindsight needs to adjust his retrospectoscope," said Boris Johnson
Variant number one was identified by the UK and deemed “under investigation” on April 1, while variant number two was only singled out by the UK on April 28.
Variant number one has since been dubbed the Kappa variant while variant number two has become known as the notorious Delta strain, as Boris Johnson said.
So in this sense, the PM is right.
But critics say the important thing is the wider picture, and the similarities between the two strains.
In late March and early April, cases were surging in India and authorities there had warned of a new strain – but the UK government put Bangladesh and Pakistan on the red list without having India join them.
And despite the PM's denials, a Public Health England update was at pains to point out how similar B.1.617.1 and B.1.617.2 were.
It said variant number two, Delta, “shares the same parent lineage” as variant number one, Kappa – both from India.
The PHE update clearly adds: "PHE has been monitoring these variants since early April."
Keir Starmer said India should have gone on the red list on April 1, adding: “If that had happened we wouldn’t have the Delta variant here – it is as simple as that"
The update on the gov.uk site says the two variants are “part of the same lineage and so are genetically similar”.
It goes on: “While closely related, their genetic profiles are different and have been designated as separate Variants Under Investigation so that we can track them properly and take fast public health action as needed.”
The World Health Organisation also appears to agree the variants were similar. The WHO’s website even goes so far to claim it designated Delta (number two) a variant of interest on April 4 – the same date as Kappa (number one).
In the PM’s defence, Delta was only then labelled “of concern” by the WHO much later, on May 11.
But it shows that when the PM fumed today that Keir Starmer “should get his facts straight”, and “he doesn’t know what the Delta variant is”, Mr Johnson could do with giving more context.
Here's a timeline of how the UK dealt with the Indian variants.
India’s Ministry of Health and Family Welfare revealed the discovery of a “double mutant variant”.
It said not enough cases had yet been found to confirm the variant was responsible for soaring case numbers.
But it added: “These mutations have been found in about 15-20% of samples and do not match any previously catalogued Variants of Concern.”
It was later claimed India's health ministry sat on this statement for two weeks and the words "high concern" were removed.
India’s daily count of new Covid cases rose above 50,000 for the first time since November.
Mumbai confirmed plans to raise hospital bed capacity from 13,773 to 21,000, while the Rajasthan government restricted celebrations of Holi and Shab-e-Barat.
The British Medical Journal published an article warning India’s cases have “taken a sharp upward turn since March”.
The article added: “Globally, India has had the third highest number of confirmed cases and deaths from Covid-19 after Brazil and the US. As of 29 March, India had 12 million cases and 162 000 deaths from the disease.”
Public Health England declared B.1.617.1 – closely related to the more worrying B.1.617.2 that will later be identified as a separate strain – a “variant under investigation”.
Officials will later say B.1.617.2 and B.1.617.3 are under surveillance but not yet variants under formal investigation.
The UK announced four countries, including India’s neighbours Pakistan and Bangladesh, would join the red list for foreign travel.
This means arrivals must quarantine in £1,750-a-head hotels rather than at home.
But India remained off the list.
By this time India’s overall rate of new cases had shot from a low of around 10,000 a day to 81,000 a day.
The travel ban on Bangaldesh and Pakistan took effect at 4am, with India still off the red list.
By this point, as NHS Test and Trace data will later show, more than half of Covid-positive people who flew in from India were carrying variants of some kind.
Between March 25 and April 7, 3,391 travellers who flew from India to England were tested for Covid.
Of the 172 who tested positive, around half (52%) were thought to have variants of concern or variants under investigation.
By comparison, 7,521 people flew to England from Pakistan and 469 tested positive in the same period.
But only four variant cases were found – a much lower rate than India of just 2%.
The B.1.617 variant family appeared on official statistics of cases in the UK for the first time, with 77 detected.
At this point it was labelled a “variant under investigation” and not split into its sub-families, 1, 2 and 3, on the government website.
Days earlier, the weekly case rate in India had passed 1.4million, with media reports suggesting bodies were piling up at crematoria waiting to be dealt with.
The UK faced a reckoning over the variant as the number of UK cases rises from 77 to 103.
Downing Street announced Boris Johnson would no longer visit India while Matt Hancock announced a travel ban.
The Health Secretary said India would be placed on the red list after all – but only four days later.
Red list travel ban from India took effect. All arrivals have since had to quarantine in a hotel rather than in their own homes.
New figures, collected to April 27 and published on April 29, separated out the B.1.617.2 variant for the first time and showed there were 202 known cases in the UK.
On April 28, B.1.617.2 – now the ‘India’ or ‘Delta’ strain we refer to – is escalated to become a “variant under investigation”.
Matt Hancock would later use this fact to defend his approach, saying the strain wasn’t even being investigated when he banned travel.
But the closely-related B.1.617.1 variant was under investigation since April 1.
Meanwhile the weekly case rate in India hit 2.6million.
Barely a week after being put under investigation, B.1.617.2 was reclassified as a “variant of concern”.
It came as startling new figures showed the number of Indian variant cases in the UK had risen from 202 to 520.
Surge testing began in Bolton, which will later be identified as a hotspot for the new strain.
Four days after the UK, the World Health Organisation classified the Delta strain as a variant of concern.
It joined those from Kent (UK), South Africa and Brazil.
"We are classifying this as a variant of concern at a global level," Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO technical lead on COVID-19, told a briefing. "There is some available information to suggest increased transmissibility."