By: Lauren Codling
THE bilateral relationship between India and the UK has been further strengthened by the collaboration to help fight the Covid-19 virus, a Foreign Office minister has said.
Speaking ahead of India’s 72nd Republic Day on Tuesday (26), Lord Tariq Ahmad, the minister for south Asia, said he was “absolutely delighted” about the strength of the ongoing vaccine partnership between the two nations.
“India, as the pharmacy of the world, is a key composite to both our countries’ commitment to the equitable access to Covid-19 vaccines around the world, through the Covax facility. This has been a key area of collaboration, including between Astra-Zeneca and the Serum Institute of India,” said Lord Ahmad, who is also minister for the Commonwealth in the Foreign Office.
The UK has committed £548 million to the Covax Advance Market Commitment (AMC), which aims to provide at least one billion doses of vaccines for high-risk populations in 80 low-and lower middle income countries and 12 eligible upper-middle income countries in 2021, including India.
The Serum Institute of India (SII) will be one of the main suppliers of Covax AMC, besides providing a significant proportion of India’s domestic supply. The current Covax portfolio includes 170 million AstraZeneca doses and 200 million doses of AstraZeneca or Novavax from the SII, with an option of up to 900 million doses agreed.
“India is a strategic partner. We look forward to working closer together within the Commonwealth as we look towards Kigali (Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Rwanda in June),” he added.
Asked if the immigration of skilled professionals was seen as a priority, Ahmad confirmed the two countries were looking to see how they could increase cooperation and mobility “as a key objective”. He noted that the UK was hoping to attract the “best and brightest”. “I think the new enhanced partnership we have with India lends itself to further strengthening our work in that particular area,” he said.
Lord Ahmad also reflected on the special status of the Indian state of Kashmir and Jammu. There have been a number of questions raised by UK politicians on the situation, following the Indian government’s decision to revoke the status in 2019.
Earlier this month, 10 British MPs urged the government to “use its influence with India and Pakistan” and send its own delegation to assess the human rights situation. And in October, the re-launch of the Conservative Friends of Kashmir (CFK) caused controversy, with Tory life peer Lord Rami Ranger cautioning at the time that interfering with “the internal matter of India is fraught with danger”.
Lord Ahmad admitted that ministers continued to “look very closely” at the ongoing situation in Kashmir. Acknowledging that many UK parliamentarians regularly raised questions about the region, the minister confirmed that human rights concerns were raised directly with Indian authorities.
He said he spoke to his counterpart in Delhi as well as to the Indian high commissioner to the UK, Gaitri Issar Kumar, with all those conversations being “productive”.
“We are keen to work with India, and we look forward to seeing the situation in Kashmir return to the sense of normality,” Lord Ahmad said. “We have a very constructive relationship with India in this respect. When questions are asked, they are raised in a very constructive way and the responses we get are equally in that same spirit.”
Lord Ahmad also highlighted the “deep regret” of prime minister Boris Johnson’s cancelled trip to India, to mark Republic Day celebrations. The visit, due to take place this week, was postponed due to the increase of coronavirus cases in Britain.
“Domestically, the prime minister felt because he’s leading the charge against the battle against Covid-19 and the rollout of the vaccine that he remained in the United Kingdom,” the minister said. “That was a point both well received and well understood by prime minister (Narendra) Modi.”