MINISTERS have been accused of a “reckless failure” to protect Britain’s borders as it emerged that flights from India were allowed for a month after cases of a new variant were discovered.

Boris Johnson tonight warned that the planned easing of lockdown restrictions on June 21 could be delayed amid fears of a fresh wave of infection sparked by the strain.

Experts fear the variant could be more transmissible than the Kent strain, though it is not believed to be more resistant to vaccines. 

The variant, named B1.617.2, was first detected in tests carried out on travellers arriving from India on the week ending March 29. 

Public Health England data shows that at least 122 passengers arriving from Mumbai and Delhi between the end of March and April 26 were carrying the strain – though it was not designated a “variant of concern” until May 7. 

Anyone arriving from India during this period would have had to self-isolate but could have done so at home rather than in a government-approved quarantine hotel. 

Meanwhile, India experienced a devastating surge in cases towards the end of March which is believed to have been driven by the emergence of the variant. 

Cases in the country more than trebled from 72,330 on March 31 to 217,353 on April 15 as the situation spiralled into a humanitarian catastrophe with hospitals completely overwhelmed by Covid patients.

Responding to the surge in infections, the government placed neighbouring Bangladesh and Pakistan onto the red list on April 9 – but India was left off.

Despite rising anxiety over the situation in India, George Eustice, the environment secretary, said on April 18 that there was “no evidence” that B1.617.2 could evade vaccines – so it was not designated as a “variant of concern”. 

Just a day later, Downing Street announced that Boris Johnson’s planned trip to India would be cancelled.

Shortly after, Health Secretary Matt Hancock told the House of Commons the country would be placed on the red list. 

But the decision was not implemented until April 23 – prompting a surge in demand for flights between India and the UK. 

According to Sky News, travel website Skyscanner reported a 250 per cent rise in searches for flights from India to the UK. Thousands of passengers arrived in Britain from the country during this period. 

Thirty flights usually arrive into the UK from India every week, though airline operators asked to operate an extra eight flights from the country to cope with the surge in demand, Sky reports.

On May 7, B1.617.2 was upgraded to become a “variant of concern” as Public Health England warned it could be even more transmissible as the Kent variant which sparked Britain’s second wave in December. 

Shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth tonight blasted the government for not closing the UK’s border to India more quickly.  

The Labour MP said: “People across the country will be deeply concerned and tonight's news brings into sharp focus Boris Johnson's reckless failure to protect our borders in this crisis.

"Only a few weeks ago we urged Matt Hancock to designate this a variant of concern and respond with speed and resolve.”

Urging the government to ramp up vaccinations, he added: "Having come so far we don't want to be set back now."

Despite the spread of the variant, the PM tonight vowed that Step Three of lockdown easing would go ahead as planned from Monday.

Up to six people will be allowed to mix indoors and the hospitality industry allowed to serve indoors.

Brits will also be able to travel abroad for the first time this year – but to a limited number of countries.

Boris Johnson also warned that “important unknowns” remained around the Indian variant, such as whether it could evade vaccines.

And he said a surge in infections could “make it more difficult to move to step four in June 21” – the date on which all legal Covid restrictions will end.

He said: "I'm told that if it is only marginally more transmissible we can continue more or less as planned but if the variant is significantly more transmissible we're likely to face some hard choices."

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