Industry chiefs and strategic experts on Monday were unanimous in their view that UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson cancelling his visit to India next week was the right move, given the COVID-19 pandemic situation, and expressed confidence that it was unlikely to affect the momentum behind an enhanced UK-India trade partnership.
Johnson told reporters that he had spoken to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and concluded that the visit planned for April 25-26 would "very sadly" have to be called off, with India added to the COVID-19 travel ban "red list" from Friday.
The two leaders are now expected to connect virtually to sign off a much-anticipated 'Roadmap 2030' as a blueprint for the next decade, on the road to achieving a free trade agreement (FTA) in future.
Lord Karan Bilimoria, president of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), said the vision would be to quadruple bilateral trade during that period and that should not be affected by the discussions being conducted virtually instead.
"Although it is disappointing, the mutual decision to postpone the PM's visit to India is the right one," said Bilimoria, founder of Cobra Beer.
"We must now look to maintain momentum; businesses are still hopeful that an enhanced trade deal with India is on the horizon -- an ambitious agreement that bolsters our two-way trading relationship across many sectors and is forecast to quadruple bilateral trade to 100 billion-pound by 2030. This is a key moment for a transformed UK-India relationship, boosting UK-India trade to new heights," he said.
The Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) was equally upbeat about the bilateral relationship, despite the visit being cancelled due to a spike in coronavirus infection rates in India linked with a new variant.
"Given the prevailing COVID situation in India it is only right that Prime Minister Johnson's visit has been postponed," said Jim Bligh, Chair of the CII UK-India Business Forum.
"Business knows that the hard work of negotiating an enhanced trade partnership is going on regardless, and we look forward to that important document being signed. As the UK and India embark on an ambitious new trading relationship, there will be many more opportunities for both nations'' leaders to meet in safer times," he said.
The Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI), which had planned a maiden India-UK Health Summit to be attended by both Prime Ministers during the visit, described its cancellation as "understandable".
"We are certain the summit would be held once the situation gets better. We are happy to note that the two Prime Ministers have agreed to a virtual meeting to launch their ambitious plans for the India-UK partnership. We look forward to the announcement of the Enhanced Trade Partnership and the 10-year roadmap for the India-UK bilateral trade and investment," said FICCI President Uday Shankar.
London-based think tank International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) pointed to the recently released Integrated Review by the British government, which had categorised India as a "key pillar" of the UK''s foreign policy shift, and concluded that the last-minute change of plans would not have an impact on that base strategy.
"Disappointing that the visit has been cancelled, but it does not disrupt the UK''s new foreign and security post-Brexit priority given to India as a 'key pillar'' of the UK''s tilt towards the Indo-Pacific," said Rahul Roy-Chaudhury, Senior Fellow for South Asia at IISS.
"An enhanced trade partnership agreement can still take place. The finalisation of the bilateral UK-India Roadmap 2030 -- expected at the virtual summit next Monday -- prioritises defence and security ties as one of five key subjects for the transformation of bilateral relations. Bilateral maritime security cooperation will be a highlight of these interactions," he said, adding that a "high-visibility" implementation of the proposed 2030 roadmap would maximise its impact.
British Indian entrepreneur Dr Nik Kotecha OBE, Founder and Chairman of Morningside Pharmaceuticals, echoed similar views on the Indo-Pacific tilt and stressed on the healthcare sector as a particular focus area.
"Last month's integrated review by the UK government highlighted the Indo-Pacific region as a priority. UK-India trade is already worth GBP 23 billion in 2019, and supports around half a million jobs in each other's economies. Pharma and healthcare are particular sectors of strength," he said.
According to some details of the prime ministerial visit released last week by the Indian government, the ''Roadmap 2030'' plan for UK-India ties is aimed at a revitalised and dynamic connect between people; re-energised trade, investment and technological collaboration; enhanced defence and security cooperation and closer engagement on regional issues -- including the Indian Ocean Region and the Indo-Pacific.
The India-UK Partnership in Climate Action, clean energy, healthcare and building on a successful vaccine collaboration to combat COVID-19 and other pandemics were also highlighted as being priority areas for the visit, which will now take place virtually.