Pakistan’s issues with the United Kingdom listing of the country’s name in the red category continue to persist. The red corner happens to be the strongest recommendation by relevant authorities in Great Britain for strict travel restrictions, mandatory quarantine and flight schedules that discourage travel to and from the UK to Pakistan.
When the listing was announced in the middle of Delta variant scare in the UK, there wasn’t much fuss over the decision in Pakistan. There was hope and expectation that this was temporary setback and travel life would soon be back to normal. That has not happened.
Even as the UK has lifted most of its internal restrictions and mandatory social distancing and other protocols have been considerably diluted, incoming and outgoing travel from Pakistan is still categorised as high-risk. In the meanwhile the listing of other countries has been revised and some of them have been — quite rightly — put in the amber category, but not Pakistan.
This is raising eyebrows and concerns among different sections of society. The Pakistan foreign office and a few ministers of the Imran Khan government have expressed their disappointment over the assessments that have blocked the revision of Pakistan’s status.
The red-listing does not fully factor-in Pakistan’s COVID-19 fighting. British government’s representatives while explaining their decisions cite fears that Pakistan’s infections could be on account of the Delta variant or other mutated variants that the British government wants to keep out of its borders.
Pakistani officials do not agree with this reasoning and in reaction cite its impressive growth in both the number of vaccinations administered to the population and strict enforcement of COVID-related measures.
“In the US the restrictions are lifted and other countries that had held our citizens to stricter standards are also easing their policies primarily because they look at our performance and decide the right course of action," said a high-ranking officer of the Pakistan foreign office, who is directly dealing with the issue.
The other reason why the UK’s red-list is becoming a bilateral red rag has to do with practical difficulties Pakistani or British-Pakistani citizens are facing. The number of Pakistani nationals living in the UK some years ago was estimated to be around 188,000.
Heavy traffic between the UK and Pakistan
These Pakistanis are those who are present in the UK on Pakistani passports. They are in addition to the around 1.4 million British Pakistanis or Pakistani origin British nationals who reside there. This is a large number and in normal times there is such heavy traffic between the two countries that travel bookings are hard to come by.
The British Airways, that had long suspended its flights to Pakistan, had resumed its air operations before COVID struck because the air travel business was really good.
As travel comes down to a trickle, restoring the flow of people between the two countries has become a diplomatic challenge. Other aspects of national life are also impacted. Business travel is suffering as is students’ educational pursuits and family interactions involving marriages, deaths, and vacationing.
On the face of Pakistan has a strong case of getting off the red list but the case has not resonated convincingly enough in London.
“We are at it. We will get it done but we do expect the UK to look at the evidence of our efforts afresh. They may reach a different conclusion if they see things with an open mind,” Pakistan foreign office official concluded.
Syed Talat Hussain is a prominent Pakistani journalist and writer. Twitter: @TalatHussain12