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PM seeks review of overseas travel, states tighten checks, Delhi wants flights stopped

🔴 The prime minister’s latest meeting comes at a time when the emergence of the new variant has sent alarm bells ringing across the globe.

Written by Kaunain Sheriff M | New Delhi |
Updated: November 28, 2021 7:01:06 am
OVID-19 New Variant Live News, Coronavirus indiaPM Modi chairs a meeting with top officials to review the Covid situation. (PMO)

In the light of growing concerns regarding the new Covid variant first detected in South Africa, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has asked officials to review the lifting of international travel restrictions. A day earlier, the Ministry of Civil Aviation announced the resumption of international scheduled commercial flights from December 15, after a 21-month gap.

The PM held a meeting Saturday morning with top Health Ministry officials, where he was briefed on the new variant Omicron and its characteristics, its impact in other countries, and its implications for India. In a statement, the PMO said Modi highlighted the need to monitor all international arrivals, with focus on countries identified as ‘at risk’. “The PM spoke about the need to be proactive in light of the new variant… He also asked officials to review plans for easing of international travel restrictions,” the statement said, adding that he stressed on precautions like masking and social distancing.

A senior official in the Aviation Ministry said while a review regarding international travel was on, no decision had been taken so far. “We are monitoring how the situation evolves and will take a decision in consultation with the ministries of Health, Home and External Affairs,” the official said.

Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal Saturday urged the PM to stop flights from countries where the new variant has been reported, as states announced checks for travellers coming from abroad.

In a tweet, Kejriwal sought a ban on the flights from countries with Omicron, saying the country had “recovered” from the pandemic with “great difficulty”. Delhi was hit badly in the second wave.

Gujarat said that in line with a directive sent by the Centre, passengers from countries categorised as ‘at risk’ by the Union Health Ministry will have to undergo Covid-19 test upon arrival in the state if they are not fully vaccinated. “Those who are fully vaccinated will also be screened and allowed to proceed if they do not show any symptoms of the infection,” state Additional Chief Secretary (Health) Manoj Aggarwal said.

Tamil Nadu announced that four Health Department officials had been deployed to monitor precautionary measures at the international airports in Chennai, Coimbatore, Madurai and Tiruchirappalli. Overseas passengers undergo RT-PCR tests at the Chennai airport, the state said, adding that from October 21 till date, 55,090 people had been tested, of whom three were Covid positive.

Karnataka said international arrivals originating from South Africa, Botswana and Hong Kong will undergo mandatory RT-PCR test and be allowed to leave the airport only if negative. The international travellers who arrived in Bengaluru between November 12 and 27 from these countries will also be tracked and tested, and those who test positive will be placed under institutional isolation in a hospital for 10 days.

Mumbai Mayor Kishori Pednekar said all passengers coming from South Africa to the city would be quarantined, and their samples sent for genome sequencing. She said they might impose similar restrictions for passengers from other affected countries.

The Aviation Ministry Friday unveiled plans for the resumption of scheduled international flights to India in a calibrated manner, with staggered reopening for countries considered ‘at-risk’. These include Europe, including the UK, in addition to South Africa, Brazil, Bangladesh, Botswana, China, Mauritius, New Zealand, Zimbabwe, Singapore, Hong Kong and Israel.

At the Saturday meeting, Modi was given an overview of the genome sequencing efforts regarding the virus, and he talked about broad-basing the same. “He directed that intensive containment and active surveillance should continue in clusters reporting higher cases, and the required technical support be provided to states which are reporting higher cases,” the PMO said.

Health Ministry officials were directed to work closely with state governments to ensure proper awareness.

Modi also underlined the need to increase second dose coverage in the country, and ensure this was done on schedule. While 83% of the target population has received its first dose in the country, those fully vaccinated are almost half of that, at 46%.

Preliminary tests indicate Omicron, or the B.1.1.529 variant, has multiple mutations — 30 in the region that encodes the spike protein, which is responsible for the virus’s entry into human cells. Some of the mutations are associated with higher transmissibility and immune evasion.

The WHO characterised it as a ‘variant of concern’ on Friday, which effectively means that Omicron has so far shown one or more changes from the existing variants: increase in transmissibility; increase in virulence of change in clinical disease presentation; and decrease in the effectiveness of diagnostics, vaccines and therapeutics.

The WHO has asked countries to undertake four specific steps regarding Omicron: enhance surveillance and genome sequencing efforts; submit complete genome sequences to the publicly available database; report clusters associated with Omicron; and improve the understanding regarding the potential impact of Omicron on Covid-19 severity, diagnostics and effectiveness in public health measures.

With 8,318 cases in the past 24 hours and an active caseload of 1.07 lakh, India has been seeing a consistent fall in its Covid count. The weekly positivity rate has been less than 1% for the last 13 days, and is currently at 0.88%.

— With ENS Economic Bureau, and ENS and PTI inputs

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