India: Situation is 'heart breaking' - Truss

Intl Trade Secretary Liz Truss says India's oxygen shortage is an 'immediate' crisis as the country passes 20m coronavirus cases.

Video Transcript

- Look at the situation in India, it is absolutely dire. What more can we do?

LIZ TRUSS: Well, it's a heartbreaking situation in India. My heart goes out to the people of India in the severe problems they're facing. The United Kingdom has already sent 600 pieces of equipment out. We're sending oxygen out. And we've got another shipment going out this week as well. And we're working very, very closely with partners across the world to make sure India has the supplies it needs.

And of course, India is of huge help to the United Kingdom last year. Making sure we had the paracetamol we need. They are close allies, the United Kingdom. And we really are working hard to make sure that we can help as much as possible.

- I mean Christian Aid have said now that, you know, most British people in high risk categories have been vaccinated. We now need to start sharing our vaccine supplies with nations like India urgently.

LIZ TRUSS: We were already part of the COVAX program, which is about supplying vaccines around the world. We're the third largest donor. Of course, the AstraZeneca vaccine is being produced in India. And that has been done under voluntary license. And I'm working very closely with Dr. Ngozi at the World Trade Organization to see what more we can do to ramp up vaccine supply across the world. Because you're absolutely right. Nobody is safe until everybody is safe.

We need to make sure that we increase supply as much as possible. Of course, to continue with our vaccination program here in the UK. But also to make sure the people of India are vaccinated and across the world. But in terms of India, the immediate issue is oxygen. That is our focus. That is the product that we are getting out to India as rapidly as possible because that is the immediate issue they're facing.

But I have a call later today with my Indian counterpart. We're talking about the free trade agreement negotiations. But we're also talking about what more we can do to help this immediate crisis in India.

- And in terms of the trade deal, which has been announced today, I mean, it is significant. You're looking at a billion pounds of new UK, India trade and investment that is being announced today. That is hugely significant. But why is it not a free trade deal?

LIZ TRUSS: So first of all, you know, this is a significant announcement. It's going to mean 6,000 new jobs in the United Kingdom, including areas like vaccination. So we've got the Serum Institute of India investing more in the United Kingdom. There are also going to be more opportunities in India. Because this is about a win-win for both countries. It's about helping India with the immediate COVID crisis. But also helping India build back better after the COVID crisis.

We will start negotiations on a full free trade agreement this autumn. Of course, free trade agreements take longer. What this is is this is the immediate gains that we can get for both countries. Driving jobs and growth here in Britain and in India.

- How quickly do you think that you can work-- with this in place, how quickly can you then work towards a free trade deal?

LIZ TRUSS: We want to launch negotiations in autumn. We want to get those negotiations completed as soon as possible. But of course, we'll be looking for early wins that we can gain for both countries. So for example, there are currently very high tariffs on cars into India, on products like whiskey into India. We want to see those tariffs lowered or removed to benefit industries here in Britain. And similarly, there are products from India that we want to see here in the United Kingdom.

And if you think about it, India is the world's largest democracy. It's a rapidly growing economy. Currently our trade is $24 billion. We think we can double that by 2030. And this is where Britain needs to be. We need to be trading with those fast growing parts of the world to the benefit of British people right across the country.

- Can I ask you about the allegations still circling around number 10? Because obviously, we're now in an election week. We've got the local elections on Thursday. How damaging do you think these allegations are in the run up to a local election?

LIZ TRUSS: Well, I've been out campaigning in the elections across the country. And what people want to know is they want to know what are my opportunities going to be? How fast is the government getting on with the vaccination program? We just had the announcement yesterday. We've done 50 million vaccines across the UK. They want to know that we are on track with our roadmap for getting out of the COVID lockdown. That's what people are concerned about.

And I think these allegations and counter rumors from what's going on in number 10 are a very, very little interest to people across the country. What they want to know is how we're dealing with COVID, how the vaccination program is going, and how we're building jobs and growth. Today, we're announcing these 6,000 more jobs thanks to our trade agreement with India.

- There are reports though in some of the papers this morning, The Times, particularly saying, there are ministers, some of your cabinet colleagues who are concerned about how this is going to play out this week. Are you one of those ministers?

LIZ TRUSS: I'm a 100% focused on my job of getting new trade deals for the United Kingdom, bringing jobs and growth across the United Kingdom, getting more of our fantastic companies exporting their cars, their food and drink products, their IT products around the world. That's my focus. And that's what my cabinet colleagues are focused on. And that's what the prime minister is focused on. He spends every waking hour thinking about how we're dealing with COVID, our vaccination program. And this is frankly a distraction from those really important issues that people care about.

- Without looking at the allegations, particularly, because we know they've been-- you know, the Labor Party can say one thing. We're hearing another thing from Downing Street. They are being denied. There are investigations underway. We get that. I'm not asking you to comment on whether you think the prime minister has done anything wrong. He's denied it. But the fact that Douglas Ross, the leader of the Scottish Conservative Party said, "If codes had been broken, then the prime minister should resign." As a matter of principle, do you agree with that?

LIZ TRUSS: Well, the prime minister is very clear that he's covered the cost of these refurbishments. That he's been working with officials. That he's declared in line with the appropriate rules. But I'm not going to answer hypotheticals about what might happen at some future date. What the prime minister has made clear is he has covered the costs. I think the British public understand that. They want us to get on with the job, which is delivering the vaccine program and making sure we recover our economy after COVID. And that we have the jobs and growth we need across the UK.

- Yeah, but even if we were supposed to question in the way of saying, if any prime minister of any party.

LIZ TRUSS: That's an even more hypothetical question. I mean, that's an even more hypothetical question.

- But there is a general rule is that, you know, if someone breaks a ministerial code, they're expected to go. And I know their ultimate decision is made by the prime minister. But, you know.

LIZ TRUSS: The prime minister is being very clear that he has covered the costs of these refurbishments. If you speak to voters across the country, which I've been doing during these elections, they fully understand. They think that's completely reasonable.

- OK. Look, can we talk holidays? Because I'm sure you're desperate for a holiday like we all are. Do you think we are going to be able to get away from May the 17th.

LIZ TRUSS: Well, we won't have much longer to wait to get the full announcement from the travel taskforce. I would suggest that people wait for that announcement. Of course, we're doing all we can to make sure that we follow our roadmap, that we open up the economy and travel gradually. But the really important thing is that we don't move too fast and jeopardize the progress we've made. People will have to wait a bit longer, I'm afraid, to be able to hear the news on exactly what's happening on the travel front. But I can assure you the government's working very hard.

- I'm going to say, bring it in gradually as well. You know, there's talk of this Big Bang reopening. Thomas Cook have said their bookings are 50% higher this week than last. I mean, people are chomping at the bit.

LIZ TRUSS: Of course, I fully understand. You know, It's been a very, very tough year for people. People haven't had the opportunity to travel either within the UK or overseas for some time. People are looking to book a holiday. But I would encourage people to wait until we make that announcement so that we can see exactly what the details are based on the data. Because what we don't want to be doing is reimporting this virus after we've done such an excellent job in getting the levels down in the United Kingdom.

So of course, we fully support safe travel. We want to make sure that people have the opportunity. But we need to be cautious. And we need to make sure that we're not simply importing the virus after we've successfully dealt with it in Britain.

- All right. But to paraphrase Leyla Moran who's the head of the All Party Parliamentary Group on coronavirus, she said, "It is crazy to look at reopening airports." You said, airports could be a breeding ground for the virus. She's very concerned and says the group is very concerned about bringing new variants back in. They want to see this all delayed at this stage.

LIZ TRUSS: Well, we are doing this in a very safe way. So we've got a very strong testing procedure in place for travel. We have a strong quarantine regime. And any further-- any opening up of travel will be made fully safe. And of course, that is why we're taking our time. The Transport Secretary is working very closely with airports to make sure that these procedures work.

But I think it's absolutely right that once we are able to, we do open these corridors up. Because first of all, it's important for trade. It's important for economic opportunities. It's important for jobs and growth here in Britain. It's important for people with family connections around the world to be able to visit and see their families. And of course, if people are-- if we are able to have people go on holiday, I don't see any reason they shouldn't, provided it's safe.

But that is the key question that the task force is determining. Is it safe? Which countries are is it with? And we will make announcements in due course? I think-- I don't think it will be too much longer before we make those announcements. So I would encourage people to wait for those latest announcements.

- But you see, there is a sort of pressing issue here, isn't there. We're talking on, you know, potentially the 17th of May. We haven't had the traffic light system announced yet. We're expecting that on the first. So we don't know which countries we can go to and come back without quarantining. We don't know quite what's happening with the NHS app and the COVID passports or test certification yet. I mean, there's a lot to cram in in a very short space of time. Are you on track to do that?

LIZ TRUSS: We are. And I know my colleagues across government are working very hard to make sure that we've got those procedures in place. And as has been said, we need to make sure that we do have the set up correct at the airports. That we do have the mechanisms right before we go ahead and make that announcement. So people are understandably frustrated. It's been a long year that we face this COVID crisis.

But I think this approach of taking things gradually, of making sure that they're irreversible has been the right approach. And people can have confidence that when we make the announcement, we'll have everything in place.