London, July 24: India House in London appears not to be have been warned by the British authorities that they were proposing to introduce TB checks before giving visas to people coming from India.
The first warning of such a move was announced in the House of Lords last night by Baroness Royall of Blaisdon, who acts as a government whip, as well as a government spokeswoman for health, international development and the foreign and commonwealth office.
Visitors from India and some other specific countries could soon be tested for tuberculosis, she disclosed. It is not clear whether all visitors from India will be included and who will bear the cost of the medical checks.
With half a million Indian visitors, some affluent, coming to the UK for holidays or business — and the government and the tourist agencies such as Visit London want to encourage the trend since India is now the second biggest investor in the UK – the British government does have a conflict of interest.
But there is mounting concern about the incidence of TB in sections of the UK population, especially Indian. According to figures released last year by Britain’s Health Protection Agency (HPA), there was a 10.8 per cent increase in TB cases in Britain, with 8,113 cases in 2005 compared with 7,321 in 2004.
The highest proportion of cases, 38 per cent, was reported among people from Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi ethnic backgrounds.
“The largest increase was seen among patients not born in the UK, who accounted for 5,310 cases,” John Watson, head of HPA’s respiratory diseases department, said at the time.
Royall told the Lords at question time: “Currently we have a pilot project with seven countries, the countries in which TB is most prevalent, in which we test people before coming to the UK. We test people before they receive their visas.”
She added: “This is a scheme which is now being evaluated and I think we will probably roll it out to more countries, like China and India.”
Tory Baroness Sharples, who said she had TB in her teens, told peers everybody coming to the UK for more than six months and all visitors from the 22 countries where it is most prevalent should be tested.
Baroness Barker, for Liberal Democrats, called for the testing to be extended to include visitors from the US.
Royall responded: “TB is an infectious disease but it’s not very infectious. The incidence of TB in this country is, I believe, grossly exaggerated in the press from time to time.”
It is understood that the UK now has between 7,000 and 8,000 people with TB compared with about 100,000 at the start of the 20th century.
Another Conservative, Baroness Gardner of Parkes, a former health authority chairman, insisted: “It is a highly infectious condition.”
Lady Royall replied: “As far as I have been informed by the department of health, TB is quite difficult to catch. It usually requires a prolonged or repeated contact with a person with infectious TB, such as living in the same household.”
But she agreed on the need to immunise children at risk.
Lord Ramsbotham, a former Chief Inspector of Prisons, spoke of a “high number” of incidents of virulent TB in jails, especially among foreigners. He urged testing prisoners on arrival and subsequent treatment.
Royall said the government was considering “extending the screening of target groups and possibly that is something that prisons will be contemplating along with their primary care trusts”.
Contacted by The Telegraph, the health department said this was a matter that should be pursued with either the home office or the foreign office.