| New Delhi |
Updated: July 31, 2020 12:43:44 pm
The new High Commissioner of UK in India, Sir Philip Barton, served as the Director General in the Cabinet Office working on the UK’s longer-term response to the Covid-19 crisis before his arrival in India six weeks ago. On his first virtual visit of Mumbai on Wednesday, he discussed a range of issues from the response to the Covid-19 crisis, UK’s new immigration policy and laying the building blocks for a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with India. Excerpts from an interview with Mayura Janwalkar:
What have your discussions been with the Indian government over the response to the Covid-19 pandemic?
While I was working at 10 Downing Street with the Prime Minister on the longer-term response, what seemed very striking was, while I was there, how much of that was about our collaboration with India at the height of the crisis in the UK.
For example, the way in which the Indian government allowed the export of paracetamol at the point where supplies had become critical in the UK, the export of some PPE, the support we had as we repatriated British nationals across India.
In terms of the pandemic itself, clearly we’re living with it for now but there is a way out through treatment and vaccines. We don’t know which vaccine is going to work as trials are still going on but the one that at the moment looks promising is the Oxford University vaccine which will be manufactured with the Serum Institute (of India).
It is really exciting that something that is being investigated and worked in the UK, will be manufactured in India and, crucially, will be made available on a global, equitable basis. We are very clear, as is the Indian government, that this vaccine is for everybody. This is a global pandemic and vaccines must be for everybody.
Yesterday, we had a roundtable with Prof (K Vijay) Raghavan who is the principal scientific advisor to the Indian government, when we talked about the technology you need to safely deliver vaccines and some of the things you need to have in place beyond the actual vaccine itself to make sure you can deliver it successfully. So there is very close collaboration on the response to the pandemic.
More broadly, I think of what the opportunities are as the UK and India recover from the economic impact of the pandemic, what should we be doing differently and better? There is a very big agenda around climate change and greening our recovery. We, the UK, have a particular responsibility because we are hosting COP26 (UN Climate Change Conference). This is our long-term plan with India on climate change and renewable energy.
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Is it possible to say how far we are from the vaccine yet?
Our approach as the UK government is not to pick a winner but to back a range of vaccines which look the most promising but I wouldn’t want to put a specific date on when one might be proven and once it is proven obviously, the process of manufacturing, distribution will take a certain amount of time as well. We keep our fingers crossed that it will be sooner rather than later.
With the UK’s new points-based immigration policy, how do you reconcile the Global Britain mantra with the hostility (in the UK) towards immigrants and immigration?
I don’t think that is a reflection of the situation in the UK. If you look at the changes we have made, we remember the European Union (EU). If you were a EU citizen, you could go visit, study in the UK without any restrictions but that wasn’t true for citizens of all countries including India. We have now levelled the playing field. So we have a new points-based system which means from wherever you come, if you have the right points, you will be allowed entry into the UK and I think that really helps a country like India.
If you look at particular sectors, for example, students — last year we issued 50,000 student visas for Indians that was a 136 per cent increase on the previous year. We’ve made it easier for students to stay on and work after they’ve studied, longer if you’ve done a PhD, we are making it easier for people from the health sector to come to the UK recognizing the fantastic work doctors, nurses throughout South Asia did through the Covid crisis.
This also, in a sense, provides training for people who come back and work in India. So it is not just a one-way street to go to the UK, you can also come back and contribute to the health sector in India. We are also open to people with particular skills, scientists, research and so on. I think the UK is very much open and we have a more levelled and even system now which helps a country like India.
At a time that there has been unrest in Hong Kong (over China’s imposition of a new law in the territory) and a stand-off with India at the LAC, what are your views about engagement with China?
The situation along the LAC is clearly a matter for India and China and we as the UK welcome efforts to de-escalate that. On the UK’s relationship with China, the Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab spoke to the Chinese Foreign Minister (on Tuesday) and we are keen to have, if we can, a positive and constructive engagement with China but we are concerned about the situation in Hong Kong and we are concerned about the human rights issues particularly in Xinjiang province. But we do want to have a positive relationship with China. We, as the UK, have a particular responsibility towards Hong Kong as there is a joint declaration which sets out the arrangements put in place there when we handed over sovereignty and we have been concerned about the developments there and that’s why we eased the immigration for Hong Kong British nationals, overseas nationals and their dependents to move to the UK. We’ve taken steps with regard to Hong Kong but the LAC is a matter for India and China.
How close have the UK and India moved towards arriving at a Free Trade Agreement (FTA)?
The meeting of virtual Joint Economic Trade Committee (JETCO), UK’s international trade secretary Liz Truss and India’s commerce minister Piyush Goyal, supported by (Union minister) Hardeep Singh Puri, minister of state for commerce met end of last week. We had a very good discussion in a virtual JETCO meeting and we agreed to take forward what we’re calling the early harvest trade partnerships and how we can deepen the trade and investment partnership between the UK and India and we will be looking at some issues around market access on both sides and how we can ease trade. Now that the UK is no longer a member of the EU and we are in charge of our own trade policy, what are the building blocks that we can put in place with a possible perspective towards a FTA.
What can you tell us about your virtual visit to Mumbai?
I visited Mumbai virtually, talked to Ratan Tata and other business leaders based in Mumbai like Mukesh Ambani, Anand Mahindra and Ajay Piramal. So I have engaged with top business leaders. From the UK point of view, Maharashtra, like most of India, is a crucial relationship because one-third of our investment in India is in Maharashtra and it’s two-way as India is now the second largest foreign investor in the UK. We’ve left the European Union and we now have control over our entry points. We have certainty around that.
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