The Union Health Ministry on Wednesday recommended to the Civil Aviation Ministry to extend the temporary suspension of flights originating from the United Kingdom until January 7. The number of samples detected in India with the new, more contagious strain of the novel coronavirus — the UK “variant under investigation” VUI-202012/01 — is now 20, the government said.
Based on inputs received from the Joint Monitoring Group (JMG) headed by Prof Balram Bhargava, DG, Indian Council of Medical Research, and the National Task Force headed jointly by Dr V K Paul, Member, NITI Aayog, and Prof Bhargava, Health Secretary Rajesh Bhushan on Wednesday wrote to his counterpart in Civil Aviation, recommending that the flight ban, initially announced from December 23 until December 31, be extended.
“Temporary suspension of flights originating from the UK into India be further extended till January 7, 2021. Thereafter, strictly regulated resumption of limited number of flights originating from the UK into India may be considered. The specifics of such a mechanism may be worked out by the Ministry of Civil Aviation in consultation with the Ministry of Health & Family Welfare,” Bhushan wrote.
Civil Aviation Minister Hardeep Singh Puri posted on Twitter: “Decision has been taken to extend the temporary suspension of flights to & from the UK till 7 January 2021. Thereafter strictly regulated resumption will take place for which details will be announced shortly.”
According to official data updated on Wednesday, the UK variant of the virus has now been detected in eight samples at the National Centre for Disease Control (NCDC), New Delhi; seven samples at the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS), Bengaluru; two samples at the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB), Hyderabad; and one sample each at the National Institute of Biomedical Genomics (NIBG), Kalyani; National Institute of Virology (NIV), Pune; and the CSIR Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology (IGIB), New Delhi. A total 107 Covid-19 positive samples have been subjected to genome sequencing, the government said.
Also on Wednesday, the Health Secretary wrote to all Chief Secretaries on the surge of cases being reported in Europe, and on the need to keep a strict vigil during New Year celebrations. “The number of Covid-19 active cases is declining steadily in the country for the last three-and-half months. Keeping in view the fresh surge of Covid-19 cases in Europe and Americas, there is still a need for maintaining comprehensive precaution and strict surveillance within out country,” Bhushan wrote.
“You would appreciate that in the wake of New Year and various celebratory events associated with it as well as on-going winter season, strict vigil is required to be maintained to curb all potential ‘super-spreader’ events and places where crowds may gather,” he said in the letter.
The Health Secretary also underlined to states the need to conduct an assessment of the situation, and to impose local restrictions from December 30 to January 1, to contain potential spread of the infection.
“Your attention is also drawn to the letter from Union Home Secretary dated December 28, addressed to all Chief Secretaries in this regard. In the said letter, Ministry of Home Affairs has mandated that states/UTs based on their assessment of the situation, may impose local restrictions with a view to contain the spread of Covid-19, such as night curfew,” Bhushan said.
“However, there shall be no restrictions on inter-state and intra-state movement of persons and goods. In view of the matter, you may promptly assess the local situation and consider imposition of appropriate restrictions on December 30 and 31, 2020, as well as on January 1, 2021,” he said.
The new strain of the virus has been found in at least 13 countries around the globe, including Germany, France, the Netherlands, Canada, Japan, South Korea, and Singapore. While UK flights have been stopped, flights between India and several of these countries are still operating.
Following the decision to extend the UK flights suspension, the aviation regulator Directorate General of Civil Aviation said in an order on Wednesday that the restriction will not apply to international all-cargo flights, and flights that are specifically approved by the regulator.
Officials said that once flights resume after January 7, mandatory RT-PCR testing of all those arriving from the UK could be one of the main requirements at airports.
At a press conference on Tuesday, Civil Aviation Minister Puri had said: “We have temporarily suspended the flights and the passengers who came in from the time of announcement till suspension on next day, they were subjected to mandatory testing at the point of arrival and even those who tested negative were required to go in for mandatory home quarantine…
“We are getting the fuller picture of what has happened. I don’t expect the extension to be a long or indefinite one…we are getting a handle on this. Once the genome sequencing is completed and we have the fuller extent of the picture, it will give us the confidence to open up the flights again.”
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