Monday, December 21, 2020

New Covid strain: India suspends UK flights till December 31

New Delhi: India on Monday decided to suspend all flights from and to the UK between December 23 to 31 amid fears of a new and more infectious coronavirus variant found in the country. India has joined a growing list of countries like Canada, Germany, France, Netherlands, Belgium, Denmark and Italy who have temporarily halted flights to the UK.

Passengers arriving from the UK before the suspension deadline will be mandatorily tested for Covid on arrival at Indian airports.

“Those found positive on arrival (will) be sent for institutional quarantine set up by state/union territory governments in collaboration with the states/UTs concerned. Those found negative should be advised to isolate at home for 7 days and will be medically monitored by the states/UTs,” aviation minister H S Puri said.

The Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) has asked airlines to strictly adhere to the deadline of ensuring that no passenger flight lands here from the UK after 11.59 pm on Tuesday (IST).

“Airline operating flights to/from India from other countries shall not board any passenger travelling from UK to India… in a flight … other directly or indirectly,” a DGCA circular said while asking airlines to strictly adhere to the order and make in-flight announcements to this effect.

However, cargo and other flights specifically approved by aviation authorities will be exempt from this nine-day — for now — suspension.

India has an air bubble agreement with UK that enables flights to be operated by airlines of both sides to fly people who are eligible to do so as per current government norms. At present, four airlines operate 67 weekly flights between various Indian cities and London — British Airways (29), Air India (23), Virgin Atlantic (8) and Vistara (7).

Since all airlines have flexible booking policies during Covid, affected passengers will be given the option for rebooking and in some cases refunds also.

“We are mainly seeing traffic to India on these flights and not so much on the UK-bound sector. This is due to NRIs coming for the holidays and also Indian students in the UK returning to the safety of their homes here,” said a senior airline official.

Giving the reasoning for the flight suspension from UK, Union health ministry secretary Rajesh Bhushan wrote to his aviation counterpart P S Kharola on Monday about the new Coronavirus variant which is “spreading and growing rapidly in the UK” and reportedly has “an unusually large number of genetic changes, particularly in the spike protein.”

“India has been seeing a sustained decline in the number of fresh Covid cases or over 2.5 months now, accompanied by a decline the number of deaths. In this scenario any interjection of (the new UK mutant) through passengers with air travel history could pose risk for pandemic management here,” the health secretary wrote.

Accordingly, the director general of health services-headed joint monitoring group for Covid recommended the flight suspension from UK as also mandatory RT-PCR testing for those arriving from there.

A Central London-based Indian origin person said a number of people had plans to travel to India for the Christmas break. “Everything is cancelled now. London is in tier 4 and we can’t even go to the airport for catching flights. This anyway horrible year just found a way to end on an unimaginably worse note,” she said.

British Airways operates 29 flights weekly between India and London Heathrow (LHR) — a daily from Delhi and Mumbai each; and five times weekly from Chennai, Bengaluru and Hyderabad.

Air India has 23 weekly flights on India-UK routes, with 22 to London and one to Birmingham. It flies to LHR from eight Indian cities — Delhi (daily), Mumbai, Bengaluru, Kolkata, Ahmedabad, Goa, Amritsar and Kochi.

Virgin Atlantic has eight weekly from LHR, four each to Delhi and Mumbai. While, Vistara currently has a daily flight on Delhi-LHR-Delhi routes. From January 16, 2021, it plans to start to start thrice weekly on Mumbai-LHR-Mumbai route and then Delhi-London will become four times weekly.

SpiceJet had planned to start London flights from Delhi and Mumbai from December 4 but indefinitely deferred the launch.

21/12/20 Saurabh Sinha/Times of India

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