MUMBAI, India — India's top diplomat and his entourage have been forced to self-isolate, participating in a G-7 foreign ministers meeting only virtually — from hotel rooms near the venue in London — after at least two members of the Indian delegation tested positive for the coronavirus.
India is currently battling the world's biggest COVID-19 wave, and is thus on the United Kingdom's Red List, meaning travel from India into the U.K. is restricted. The rules stipulate that while regular Indians are barred from entering the U.K., diplomats may do so, but are required to self-isolate.
It appears that India's minister of external affairs, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, was granted an exception to that rule, because he has held several in-person meetings, including with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, since arriving in London on Monday.
British media reported that two members of Jaishankar's delegation had since tested positive.
In a tweet, Jaishankar said he had been made aware of the exposure Tuesday evening. "As a measure of abundant caution and also out of consideration for others, I decided to conduct my engagements in the virtual mode," he wrote. "That will be the case with the G7 Meeting today as well."
"We deeply regret that Foreign Minister Jaishankar will be unable to attend the meeting today in person but will now attend virtually, but this is exactly why we have put in place strict COVID protocols and daily testing," a senior British diplomat was quoted by Reuters as saying.
Jaishankar's meeting Monday with Blinken was their first in-person meeting since the Biden administration assumed office. U.K. Home Secretary Priti Patel also met Tuesday with Jaishankar, tweeting a photo of them wearing masks.
The news of Jaishankar's trip to London, as well as the positive coronavirus tests among his staff, sparked criticism back home in India. Some Indians questioned the wisdom of his travel at an all-hands-on-deck moment in the pandemic.
The country has confirmed more than 300,000 coronavirus cases daily for the past two weeks, and its health care system is collapsing. On Wednesday, India confirmed more than 382,000 new cases and 3,780 deaths — its highest single-day death toll since the pandemic began.
"Man travelled to London just to hold virtual meeting with G-7 leaders. Why wasted so much money and time?" one Indian wrote on Twitter. "You should have stayed in India and held meeting virtually."
In a report issued last week, the World Health Organization said India now accounts for nearly half of all new global cases. Crematoriums in the country have been overwhelmed, and scientists say the real number of deaths may be much higher than the officially reported numbers. Meanwhile, coronavirus testing has fallen sharply in India, so it's not clear whether the surge has peaked.
In late April, the United Kingdom imposed travel restrictions on anyone arriving there after having transited India in the previous 10 days. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson last month called off a planned visit to India "in view of the prevailing COVID situation." The U.S. has imposed similar restrictions.
Although India itself is not a member of the G-7 – which includes Britain, the United States, Canada, France, Germany, Italy and Japan — it was among the countries invited to attend the first such meeting of the group's foreign ministers in more than two years. Australia, South Korea and South Africa were also invited to the gathering, which sets the stage for the G-7 leaders summit in Cornwall, England, next month.
Jaishankar and his delegation arrived in London on Monday for a four-day visit at the invitation of British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab.
The Indian delegation had been expected to attend a face-to-face bilateral meeting with Raab in Kent on Thursday, but that is now expected to be held virtually, India's Economic Times reports.
NPR's Scott Neuman reported from Washington.