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Wednesday Sep 15 2021

Red List review: Lack of genomic surveillance in Pakistan still a worry for UK

Londons Heathrow Airport. File photo
London's Heathrow Airport. File photo

  • UK government will review categorisation of countries on Wednesday.
  • British government says low testing rates in Pakistan a matter of concern.
  • Dr Sultan explains to UK technical team about measures taken to control COVID-19.

LONDON: The UK government has said that low testing rates and the lack of genomic surveillance in Pakistan are causes of concern for them, as it gets ready to review the names of countries on the Red List on Wednesday night.

On Tuesday, credible sources in both Pakistan and UK shared full details of the Red List review with this correspondent, explaining the progress made and the continuing issues around the COVID-19 response of the Pakistani authorities.

The UK's action of putting Pakistan on the Red List continuously has caused friction between the two countries to the extent that Pakistan refused to allow permission to a chartered flight on September 7, which was set to take off from London for Islamabad. 

Twenty-five Pakistani national deportees were on the flight. 

Pakistan refuses flight permission

Diplomatic sources confirmed that Pakistan told the Home Office that it will not accept the flight as a token of protest over its action to keep the country continuously on the Red List. 

The Pakistan High Commission denied the flight cancellation was linked with the Red Listing. However, a source in the UK government linked the flight cancellation – which cost the UK govt over £100,000 – with the Red Listing.

Dr Faisal Sultan discusses issue with UK scientists

Diplomatic sources confirmed that since the last review three weeks ago during which the UK decided to keep Pakistan in the Red List, SAPM Dr Faisal Sultan had held meetings with UK scientists at the Joint Biosecurity Centre (JBC). 

Scientists at the JC make the final decision on the UK's traffic light system of Red, Green and Amber countries.

Sources said Dr Sultan explained to the UK technical team on the measures taken to control the COVID-19 spread by Pakistan. However, the UK scientists told him that Pakistan’s genomic sequencing response lacked.

Sources said Pakistan was told that the overall testing rates were also low and the lack of genomic surveillance posed serious problems. Dr Faisal Sultan was also told that the UK couldn’t afford to take risks as it would pose a whole new threat to public health if an unknown variant enters the UK.

Sources privy to the high-level meeting informed this reporter that the JBC experts informed the Pakistani health official that the UK was concerned about the beta variant which was first found in South Africa.

Dr Faisal Sultan, according to sources, told the UK govt that Pakistan was doing everything it can but the UK should focus only on those who will be travelling and not on the country as a whole.

Diplomatic and government sources who spoke to this reporter said there was also hope that Pakistan, Turkey and nearly 15 other countries will be moved to the amber list as positive cases have registered a decline in Pakistan in the last week. 

However, in the end, these will be scientists who will make the final decision.

UK minister defends Red Listing of Pakistan

In another development on Tuesday, Robert Courts MP, UK’s Minister for Aviation, Maritime and Security, defended the UK’s decision to keep Pakistan on the Red List while lifting the ban from India.

In a letter to Afzal Khan MP, Robert Courts said safeguarding public health is the UK's priority and the “combination of a deteriorating epidemiological situation, combined with low testing rates and lack of genomic surveillance in Pakistan is a concern”.

The minister wrote that the traffic light system categorises all countries based on risk to protect public health and the vaccine rollout from variants of COVID-19.

The minister said: “The situation in India has stabilized and we are no longer seeing a large growth in cases.”

UK government sources have said that the number of countries on the Red List is set to be significantly reduced under new travel rules as the Red List designation policy is expected to be reserved for countries where there are concerns over specific, dangerous variants of concern, specifically the prevalence of the beta variant first found in South Africa.

Pakistan’s prime minister and foreign minister have called on the UK to remove Pakistan from the Red List and the UK foreign secretary has said he wants Pakistan to come off the Red List but added that the final decision will be made by the scientists.