In view of the emergence of a new COVID-19 strain, India on Monday took several steps as concerns across the country mounted. The Union Health Ministry has called an urgent meeting of its Joint Monitoring Group on Monday to discuss the emergence of the mutated variant of the coronavirus that has led to a surge in the infection rate in the UK.
The Centre suspended all flights from and to the UK from December 22 to December 31 joining several other nations that sealed their borders to the UK, as Union Health Minister Harsh Vardhan said the government is alert and there is no need for panic.
All passengers coming from the UK through flights till Tuesday (December 22) will have to undergo an RT-PCR test for COVID-19 on arrival at the airports "as a measure of abundant precaution", the Civil Aviation Ministry said.
Aviation regulator Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) also issued a directive to all airlines that passengers coming from the UK should not be allowed to board their flights from any other city to India during the suspension period. The regulator said the suspension -- which comes in Christmas week -- would not be applicable on cargo flights.
Several countries, including France, Canada, Turkey, Belgium, Italy and Israel, have banned flights from the UK with the British government warning that the potent new strain of the virus was "out of control" and imposing a stringent new stay-at-home lockdown from Sunday.
"Considering the prevailing situation in UK, Govt. Of India has decided that all flights originating from UK to India to be suspended till 31st December 2020 (23.59 hours)," the Civil Aviation ministry said on Twitter.
This suspension will start after 11.59 PM of December 22 and consequently flights from India to the UK shall also stand temporarily suspended during the period, it added. "As a measure of abundant precaution, passengers arriving from UK in all transit flights (flights that have taken off or flights which are reaching India before 22nd Dec at 23.59 hrs) should be subject to mandatory RT-PCR test on arrival at the airports concerned," it said.
Union Health Minister said, "The government is fully alert about everything. If you ask me, there is no reason to panic the way we are seeing in this press conference." He said the government had done everything that was important to handle the COVID-19 situation in the last one year. The scientific community, he added, had very ably risen to the occasion, continuously striving and contributing to whatever was needed to combat and understand any aspect of COVID-19.
A Vistara spokesperson said the airline will comply with the government's order to suspend UK flights. "In order to minimize inconvenience to our customers, we will enable one-time free-of-charge rescheduling of affected bookings to any date until 31 December 2021," the spokesperson noted.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson last week said a fast-moving new variant of the virus that is 70 per cent more transmissible than existing strains appeared to be driving the rapid spread of new infections in London and southern England in recent weeks. But he stressed "there's no evidence to suggest it is more lethal or causes more severe illness," or that vaccines will be less effective against it.