Mutant coronavirus: UK flyers to India to face Covid test before boarding, after landing

Passengers from the UK won't be allowed on a flight to India without a negative RT-PCR test report. They have to take a test on arrival too

Mutant coronavirus: UK flyers to India to face Covid test before boarding, after landing
Representative image . Source: Unsplash

Flights between India and the UK, which were suspended in the wake of the detection of a new and more infectious strain of coronavirus, would be resumed from January 6, 2021, Civil Aviation Minister Hardeep Singh Puri said. More specifically, flights from India to the UK would commence from January 6, while those from the UK to India would start from January 8.

What is important to note here is that passengers coming from the UK would have to pass through a double-layered screening. This means that they would be tested both before boarding and after they arrive in India, Puri announced. 

According to the Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) issued by the government in this regard, all passengers coming from the UK would have to carry a negative RT-PCR report from a test done within 72 hours prior to undertaking the journey. Self-declaration forms would also need to be submitted online at least 72 hours before the scheduled travel. The airlines must ensure the availability of a negative RT-PCR report before allowing a passenger to board the flight. 

Additionally, the passengers arriving in India would have to undergo compulsory RT-PCR tests at the Indian airports concerned. The cost of these tests would have to be borne by the passengers themselves.

These instructions were part of a long list prepared by the government as part of the SOP for epidemiological surveillance and response to the mutant coronavirus in the context of regulated resumption of flights from the UK to India. This SOP would be valid till January 30 (11.59 pm), Puri said. 

Also read: UK flights to stay banned till January 7, regulated resumption to follow

The schedule for the resumption of flights would be valid till January 23, and further frequency would be determined after review, according to the civil aviation minister. Initially, there would be 30 flights in a week between the two countries. These would be divided equally between the Indian and UK carriers, which means the carriers of the two countries would operate 15 flights a week each. Puri had pointed out at a press conference in New Delhi last week that 60 flights a week were being operated between the two countries when a temporary ban was imposed in view of the emergence of the mutant coronavirus. 

On December 21, the Indian government temporarily banned all flights from the UK with effect from midnight of December 23 till December 31, 2020. Flights from the UK were allowed to land in India only till December 22, 11.59 pm. Also, all passengers coming from the UK on all international flights (flights in transit) had to undergo compulsory RT-PCR tests. 

"Even those who tested negative were required to go in for mandatory home quarantine. We went one step further. We went back to November 25 and any passenger who had come directly or indirectly from the UK, we did some contact tracing, we did some genome sequencing," Puri had informed. 

The Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) had separately added, "Airlines operating flights to/from India from other countries shall not board any passenger travelling from United Kingdom to India and shall ensure that no passenger coming from United Kingdom is boarded in a flight for any destination in India directly or indirectly."       

Also read: As India plans UK flights after January 7, mutant coronavirus hits 20 people already

Then on December 30, Puri announced an extension of the flight ban till January 7 and a calibrated resumption thereafter. 

As part of this regulated flight resumption, initially, only five Indian airports -- Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, Bangalore and Hyderabad --  would be handling flights to and from the UK. The SOP added that the DGCA would be permitting the eligible airlines to operate a limited number of flights between the two countries. The regulator would also ensure adequate spacing between the flights scheduled to arrive at the Indian airports to avoid crowding during the Covid-testing procedures. 

The DGCA would also see to it that no airline allows a passenger to travel from the UK to India via a transit airport of a third country so that there are no omissions in monitoring passengers. All international travellers described in the scope of the SOP are required to declare their travel history of the past 14 days and fill up self-declaration forms to be screened for Covid-19. 

Passengers testing corona-positive on arrival would be isolated in an institutional facility in a separate unit coordinated by the respective state health authorities. The positive samples would be sent to the INSACOG laboratories for genome sequencing. INSACOG (NIBMG Kolkata, ILS Bhubaneswar, NIV Pune, CCS Pune, CCMB Hyderabad, CDFD Hyderabad, InSTEM Bengaluru, NIMHANS Bengaluru, IGIB Delhi and NCDC Delhi) is a consortium of 10 government laboratories engaged in genome-sequencing of positive coronavirus samples of UK returnees.  

If after genome-sequencing a passenger is found to be carrying the mutant coronavirus, s/he would continue to be kept in a separate unit. The patient would be tested on the 14th day after having tested positive initially. The patient would be kept in the isolation unit till his/her sample is negative.     

Those passengers found to be corona-negative would have to quarantine themselves at home for 14 days and would be regularly monitored by the concerned state/district authorities.

All contacts of the passengers, who arrive in India between January 8 and 30 and test positive on arrival, would be subjected to institutional quarantine at separate quarantine centres and tested according to Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) guidelines. Contacts of the suspect case, in this regard, are the co-passengers seated in the same row, three rows in front and three rows behind along with identified cabin crew. Community contacts of passengers who test positive during home quarantine would have to undergo institutional quarantine in separate centres for 14 days and would be tested according to ICMR protocols. 

Also read: Covid-19 vaccination to cover 30 crore Indians from January-July, MoCA fully ready

The SOP pointed out that between December 22 and 29, a total of 23 countries (including the UK) had reported the presence of the mutant coronavirus with 151 cases. The European Centre for Disease Control (ECDC) estimated the new coronavirus variant to be more transmissible with a propensity to affect the younger population. The new variant is understood to contain a set of 17 changes or mutations. One of the most significant changes is in the spike protein that the virus uses to bind to the human receptor. This may cause the virus to become more infectious and to transmit between people more easily. 

The first known case of the mutant coronavirus in India was detected in Uttar Pradesh's Meerut where a two-year-old girl tested positive. Her parents were found to be infected by the old strain of the coronavirus after the family returned from the UK. According to various media reports, 29 people in India have already been infected by the UK variant of the coronavirus.

Government data stated that from November 25 to December 23 midnight, about 33,000 passengers disembarked at various Indian airports from the UK. All these passengers are being tracked and subjected to RT-PCR tests by states/Union Territories. Out of these UK returnees, 114 people had earlier been found to be corona-positive. 

Denmark, the Netherlands, Australia, Italy, Sweden, France, Spain, Switzerland, Germany, Canada, Japan, Lebanon and Singapore had already reported the presence of the UK variant of the coronavirus.

The Drugs Controller General of India (DCGI) on January 3 announced final approval for two Covid-19 vaccines -- Oxford-AstraZeneca's Covishield and Bharat Biotech's Covaxin. Dry runs for the inoculation is underway in India. The Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine had been given the go-ahead in the UK too. The UK had earlier become the first country in the world to administer the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. According to a BBC report, over 1,30,000 were vaccinated in the first week itself.

However, the UK continues to be buffeted by the coronavirus. The country registered 53,135 new Covid-19 cases and 414 related deaths on December 29. The UK broke its daily record since the pandemic began for a second day on the trot, CNN Philippines reported.

According to the Union ministry of health data, as on January 3, 2021 (8 am), there were 1,03,23,965 confirmed cases of Covid-19 in India. Out of them, 99,27,310 or 96.16% have recovered. There were 2,47,220 active cases, while 1,49,435 patients have died.