The government plans to operate two flights to evacuate Indian citizens from China’s Hubei province, the epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak, and has decided to isolate them for 28 days instead of the customary 14-day incubation period.
Officials in the Ministry of Health said only “asymptomatic people” or those without symptoms of flu will be airlifted out of Wuhan, the capital of Hubei. This, they said, is to ensure “minimal chances” of the infection spreading to people who have not been exposed to the virus such as those facilitating the evacuation. Follow Coronavirus outbreak LIVE Updates
On Wednesday evening, Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson Raveesh Kumar tweeted: “Chinese Government requested for permission to operate two flights to bring back our nationals from Hubei Province of China. @EOIBeijing in touch with Chinese authorities on the ground to work out necessary logistics. We will share regular updates.”
On the decision to only airlift those without flu symptoms, a senior Health Ministry official told The Indian Express, “We did discuss the issue of what happens to people who come in contact with those being evacuated during the process of their leaving China and coming to India. We will equip them with all protective gear but also any person who shows symptoms will not be allowed to leave China. That is decided already. We do not yet know the exact numbers that will be evacuated. However, we have identified facilities of the ministries of defence, home and labour for isolation of all those who come back from China. They will be kept for 28 instead of 14 days.”
The Embassy of India (EOI) in Beijing has asked Indians intending to avail of the option for evacuation from Hubei to confirm their willingness in writing by 4 pm local time (1.30 pm IST) on Wednesday and also consent to the possibility of being “rejected” for evacuation based on the results of their medical tests.
In a message sent Wednesday morning, officials in the Embassy said there are “working on finalising the date and logistics of the evacuation of Indian nationals” from Hubei province.
Around 500 Indians are currently in Wuhan and Hubei province amidst an effective lockdown owing to the rapid spread of the virus. In India, 39 people across eight states have so far been isolated, of whom 27 have already tested negative and tests are underway on the others. The Health Ministry has revised its advisory, asking Indians to “refrain” from travelling to China.
Airlines from India flying to China have suspended some of their flights to that country and also implemented measures to prevent their crew from getting exposed to the outbreak.
India’s largest airline IndiGo said Wednesday that it has decided to suspend its Bengaluru-Hong Kong flight from February 1 and the Delhi-Chengdu flight from February 1 to 20.
Air India said it would suspend its Delhi-Shanghai flight from January 31 to February 14, and cut the frequency of its Delhi-Hong Kong flight to three per day.
“After carefully assessing the current Coronavirus situation in China, IndiGo is taking some safety measures for its customers, crew and staff. Due to China travel restrictions, we have seen a high number of cancellations from China on our Delhi-Chengdu route and vice versa,” IndiGo said in a statement. It added that it would continue to operate its Kolkata-Guangzhou flight and that its operating crew would return to India on the inbound flights without any layover in China.
An Air India spokesperson said the airline will operate its Delhi-Hong Kong flight on a “quick-turnaround basis”, meaning that it would minimise the layover period for its crew. The spokesperson added that all crew members rostered on flights between India and southeast Asia have been asked to wear N95 masks.
Airlines flying to mainland China and Hong Kong – IndiGo, Air India and SpiceJet – have already announced waiver of cancellation and rescheduling charges.
With the government asking Air India to prepare a special flight to evacuate Indians in Wuhan, the airline has kept a 423-seater Boeing 747-400 jumbo jet on standby, which will operate on the Mumbai-Wuhan-Delhi sector once it receives all the requisite approvals from the authorities.
China on Wednesday said that it would make all appropriate arrangements and provide necessary assistance if any country “insists” on evacuating its nationals. Besides India, several other countries including the US, France, Japan, South Korea, are making arrangements to airlift their nationals from Hubei.
On Tuesday, Sun Weidong, China’s Ambassador to India, tweeted: “The WHO does not recommend the evacuation of nationals, and called on the international community to remain calm and not overreact. The WHO is confident in China’s epidemic prevention and control ability.”
For now, 21 airports in India have thermal scanning for passengers coming in from China and Hong Kong, with the government procuring 100 more scanners. Officials in health ministry said the scanners are being sent to the destination airports.
The senior Health Ministry official also assured that there are enough testing kits and protection gear available. “We have kits to test 5,000, we have so far done less than 30 tests. The department of health research is looking at the availability of kits but right now, we are in a good place,” the official said.
Of the patients isolated so far, there have been no nCoV positive cases though there were some cases of flu and other infections. “Once the test is negative, they can go home but we want them to go cured,” the official said.
Though the fatality rate of the current virus is said to be low at around 3%, India is not taking any chances. Replying to a question on whether the 2019 nCoV outbreak could affect active pharmaceutical ingredients for medicines coming in from China, the official said the matter has not been discussed yet.
The Embassy of India in Beijing has sent out a “consent note” to be signed by individuals opting for evacuation. In the note, addressed to the embassy, individuals have been asked to “confirm” their “readiness” to follow all instructions given by Embassy officials and an understanding that a mandatory 14-day quarantine will be enforced on arrival in India. Health Ministry officials, however, said that as an added precaution, the quarantine has been extended to 28 days.
Those opting for the evacuation have been asked to send a scanned copy of the form to a designated email address, after which the embassy will initiate the process. A unique token number will be sent on email to the individual as confirmation regarding his/her evacuation. “Original copy of the signed consent note and the token number will be required to be produced at the time of evacuation,” the embassy said.
While students The Indian Express spoke to said they were looking at the best possible option, an Indian professional living in Wuhan said he was waiting for his employer’s permission before opting for an evacuation.
“I believe most students will opt for the evacuation because it doesn’t look like the lockdown will lift for another two weeks,” he told The Indian Express via WeChat. “However, several of us work here, and I have to discuss my plans with my employer.”
Thermal and symptomatic screening has been initiated at 22 airports – Delhi, Hyderabad, Mumbai, Kochi, Bengaluru, Ahmedabad, Amritsar, Kolkata, Coimbatore, Guwahati, Gaya, Bagdogra, Jaipur, Lucknow, Chennai, Thiruvananthapuram, Trichy, Varanasi, Visakhapatnam, Bhubaneswar, Goa and Chandigarh.
With Pranav Mukul, New Delhi
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