British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Tuesday cancelled his Republic Day visit to India later this month, citing the need to oversee the Covid-19 pandemic response at home. The development comes as Britain began its third Covid-19 lockdown on Tuesday, with citizens under orders to stay at home.
“Prime Minister Boris Johnson spoke to Prime Minister Modi this morning, to express his regret that he will be unable to visit India later this month as planned,” a Downing Street spokeswoman said.
“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.
“Prime Minister Boris Johnson hopes to be able to visit India in the first half of 2021, and ahead of the UK’s G7 Summit that Prime Minister Narendra Modi is due to attend as a guest,” the UK government further said.
The two leaders underlined their “shared commitment” to the bilateral relationship, and to continuing to build on the close collaboration between our countries, including in response to the pandemic, the statement said.
Confirming the development, government sources said, “Boris Johnson called PM Modi and regretted that he would have to cancel his visit to India in the wake of coronavirus-related situation in the UK.”
Johnson would have been the sixth leader from the UK to be Chief Guest at the Republic Day celebrations. The last British leader to be Chief Guest was Prime Minister John Major in 1993.
In December, visiting British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab announced that Johnson would be chief guest at the Republic Day celebrations in January.
Following the announcement, Johnson had written to Modi to formally accept his invitation to visit India, which was to mark his first major bilateral visit since taking office in 2019.
“I am absolutely delighted to be visiting India next year at the start of an exciting year for Global Britain, and look forward to delivering the quantum leap in our bilateral relationship that Prime Minister Modi and I have pledged to achieve,” Johnson had said at the time.
“As a key player in the Indo-Pacific region, India is an increasingly indispensable partner for the United Kingdom as we work to boost jobs and growth, confront shared threats to our security and protect our planet,” he had said.
An invitation to be Republic Day chief guest is symbolic from the Indian government’s perspective. Choosing the UK was seen through the lens of ties with post-Brexit UK on multiple fronts — economic, people-to-people, political and strategic levels.
Britain has been among the countries worst-hit by Covid-19, with the second highest death toll in Europe. On Monday, Johnson said the highly contagious new coronavirus variant first identified in Britain was spreading so fast the National Health Service (NHS) risked being overwhelmed within 21 days.