India joined a growing list of countries on Monday to seal off access to people who have been to the UK, suspending all flights to and from the country between December 23 and December 31 in order to stop the arrival of a new strain of the coronavirus Sars-Cov-2 feared to spread faster.
All passengers who arrive from the UK on December 21 and 22 will be asked to take an RT-PCR test for Covid-19 at the airport, with only those who test negative be allowed to go home, where they will need to isolate for seven days. Anyone who tests positive will be taken to institutional quarantine or to a medical facility if their health requires, the government announced.
The move came hours after an emergency meeting of the Union health ministry’s joint monitoring group (JMG), which reviewed information from the UK where authorities on Saturday released details of B.1.1.7, a new strain of the coronavirus with an unusually high number of changes.
After receiving the expert group’s opinion, the civil aviation ministry announced suspension of flights to and from UK.
“Considering the prevailing situation in UK. Government of India has decided that all flights originating from UK to India shall be temporarily suspended till 31st December 2020 (23.59 hours). This suspension to start w.e.f. 23.59 hours, 22nd December 2020,” the ministry said in a statement, which was reiterated separately by minister Hardeep Singh Puri.
“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 added.
“It is just a precautionary measure. This strain has not been found in India,” said Union health secretary Rajesh Bhushan.
A second top official, too, said genomic sequencing has not found such a variant in India.
“We have not found anything related to the UK strain so far in any of our samples. Be it in our laboratory in National Institute of Virology (NIV) in Pune or any other laboratories across the country doing genome sequencing, there is no evidence of this mutation in our samples,” said Dr Samiran Panda, head, epidemiology and communicable diseases, Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR).
“We have imposed a 10-day suspension on flights to and from UK after a thorough review by the government. We will reassess the suspension period as per the situation prevailing in the country,” an aviation ministry official said, asking not to be named. Passengers will not be allowed to leave the airport until the test results are out, and states will make arrangements for waiting passengers. Those whose test results are positive will be isolated, and those with negative results will have to mandatorily remain in home isolation for a week.
Some states, such as Maharashtra and Kerala, separately announced tougher restrictions.
The aviation ministry official quoted above said that the Centre too could announce similar restrictions as a whole for arrivals from other European nations.
Genomic sequencing repository Nextstrain showed the variant found in UK was also circulating in Denmark, and similar mutations – although in a different strain – were seen in some samples from South Africa.
India has been operating international flights through bilateral transport bubbles with 23 countries including UK since calling off scheduled overseas flight operations when it announced the lockdown in March.
India’s bubble agreement with UK covered at least 70 flights per week, according to the Director General of Civil Aviation (DGCA). The airlines flying these routes were Air India, British Airways, Vistara and Virgin Atlantic. The new coronavirus variant has prompted the UK government to impose a Tier 4 lockdown across the country and tighten restrictions for all of England especially during the festive period.
Viruses mutate often as the biological process of replication within hosts they infect is not always a perfect process. The Sars-Cov-2 has also been mutating, but none of these changes have been seen as worrying as yet.
Experts from the Covid-19 Genomics UK Consortium on Saturday said the new variant is significant because it now “accounts for an increasing proportion of cases in parts of England”, “has an unusually large number of genetic changes, particularly in the spike protein”, and the mutations “have potential biological effects”.