The government today banned flights from the UK till December 31 over a new fast-spreading strain of the coronavirus in that country. The ban will start from Wednesday and all passengers arriving from the UK before then will be tested on arrival at airports.
"Considering the prevailing situation in UK, the government of India has decided that all flights originating from UK to India to be suspended till 31st December," said the aviation ministry after a joint monitoring group on COVID-19 met this morning to discuss the mutant coronavirus that has spread rapidly in the UK, sending cases rocketing within days.
Union Health Secretary Rajesh Bhushan said the new variant had an unusually large number of genetic changes and the development "calls for enhanced epidemiological surveillance, enhanced containment" and other measures to effectively tackle the challenge.
"India has been seeing a sustained decline in the number of fresh Covid-19 cases for over two months now, accompanied by a decline in the number of deaths. In this scenario, any interjection of a SARS-CoV-2 variant virus through passengers with air travel history could pose critical risks for pandemic management in India," he said.
Passengers on flights from Britain arriving before midnight tomorrow will be subjected to RT-PCR tests at the airport. Those who test positive will be sent to institutional quarantine while the rest will be asked to home-isolate for seven days.
Canada, Saudi Arabia, and several European countries have suspended flights from the UK over the new strain, believed to be 70 per cent more infectious. British Health Secretary Matt Hancock says "the new variant is out of control".
Much is unknown about the strain, but experts say current vaccines should still be effective against it.
Health Minister Harsh Vardhan said the government was fully alert about the new strain and stressed "there's no need to panic".
There had been calls to ban flights from the UK since yesterday. Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal tweeted this morning: "New mutation of corona virus has emerged in UK, which is a super-spreader. I urge central government to ban all flights from UK immediately."
The UK is one of 23 countries that India shares an "air bubble" with; the country is home to a huge Indian diaspora and several flights per day take hundreds of people between London and New Delhi and London and Mumbai.
India, which has the second-highest number of cases after the US, does not currently mandate institutional quarantine for international travellers if they have a negative COVID-19 test result 72 hours before entering the country.
The mutant virus was first detected in southeast England in September. It is quickly becoming the dominant strain in London and other parts of the UK, and has led to surging infection numbers and toughest levels of restrictions on some 18 million Britons.
Italy has reported a patient who had recently returned from the UK, infected with the mutant virus.
The new strain has worried health experts at a time when several nations, including the UK and the United States, have cleared Covid vaccines to boost their fight amid pandemic.
European Union experts believe existing vaccines against coronavirus are effective against the new strain.
India's coronavirus cases passed the 1-crore mark on Saturday. Worldwide, over 7.68 crore cases have been reported so far; 16.9 lakh people have died.