Boris Johnson has joined foreign ministers from the G7 group of industrialised nations as the UK hosted their first face-to-face meeting in more than two years.
The Prime Minister earlier denied the meeting was a mistake after India’s foreign minister was forced to pull out of attending in person after two positive coronavirus cases were detected in the country’s travelling delegation.
Subrahmanyam Jaishankar participated virtually in the event, where India had been invited as a guest, after coming into contact with the suspected cases, although he has not tested positive.
Mr Johnson arrived at the summit venue of Lancaster House in central London for a brief appearance on Wednesday afternoon, where he was greeted by Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab.
When asked if it was a mistake to hold the meeting during a campaign visit to West Midlands earlier on Wednesday, the Prime Minister said: “I think it’s very important to try to continue as much business as you can as a Government.
“We have a very important relationship with India and with our G7 partners.
“As I understand it, what has happened is the individuals concerned are all isolating now.
“I will be seeing the Indian foreign minister later this afternoon and that will be a Zoom exchange, I’m given to understand.”
The two Indian cases were picked up by advance testing and none of the party had attended the summit venue, where there are strict coronavirus security measures in place.
Mr Jaishankar tweeted: “Was made aware yesterday evening of exposure to possible Covid positive cases.
“As a measure of abundant caution and also out of consideration for others, I decided to conduct my engagements in the virtual mode. That will be the case with the G7 meeting today as well.”
A senior UK diplomat said: “We deeply regret that foreign minister Dr Jaishankar will be unable to attend the meeting today in person and will now attend virtually, but this is exactly why we have put in place strict Covid protocols and daily testing.”
India, Australia, South Korea, South Africa, and the chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations were invited to join the talks on Wednesday as part of the UK’s tilt to the Indo-Pacific region.
During the visit to the UK, the Indian delegation had other meetings but Public Health England has assessed that social distancing and mask-wearing meant there was no need for any further action.
Home Secretary Priti Patel met the Indian foreign minister on Tuesday, but she has not been told to self-isolate.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said: “I do think we need to ask questions about how this happened, if only to make sure it is not repeated.
“It is a reminder of how vigilant we need to be about our borders – we’ve been challenging Government on this for some months.”
Coronavirus measures in place at the foreign ministers’ meeting include regular testing and cleaning and clear plastic screens between foreign ministers at the summit table.
Face masks were worn for the official photograph and handshakes have been replaced by forearm bumps to avoid the risk of contamination.
Ministers from the G7 – the UK, US, Canada, Japan, France, Germany and Italy – have been urged to do more to help poorer countries vaccinate their citizens.
Former prime minister Gordon Brown and World Health Organisation chief Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus have called on the wealthy nations to step up contributions to the international effort.
Mr Raab has stressed the UK’s commitment to the Covax initiative, which distributes coronavirus jabs to developing nations.
But in a letter to the Foreign Secretary, Mr Brown claimed that the “vaccine gap between the richer and poorer parts of the world is growing by the day”.
Other issues on the agenda on Wednesday were set to include media freedom, arbitrary detention – on Sunday Mr Raab effectively accused Iran of treating Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe as a hostage – and girls’ education.
The ministers will sign up to new global targets to get 40 million more girls into school and 20 million more reading by the age of 10 in low and lower middle income countries by 2026, and also promise £10.9 billion over the next two years to help women in developing countries get jobs and build businesses.
Separately, No 10 confirmed that Mr Johnson also spoke over the phone with German chancellor Angela Merkel about working at G7-level to reduce carbon emissions before further international discussions take place on Thursday at the Petersburg climate dialogue.