UK flyers to Delhi face shocking apathy, caught unawares by hard quarantine rules
The SOP issued by the Union government had said that UK flyers found negative in RT-PCR tests at the airport would be allowed to go home
Over 250 passengers from the UK landing at Delhi's Indira Gandhi International Airport on Friday (January 8) were caught off guard by the Delhi government's sudden decision to impose mandatory institutional quarantine on even those UK flyers who test negative for the coronavirus.
This created complete chaos at the airport as passengers -- even those with infants -- who had arrived on Air India flight AI-112 were left high and dry. The passengers were gathered in groups to be taken to hotels for institutional quarantine.
"Dear Arvind Kejriwal, I am one of the passengers of flight AI 112 from London with my 4.5 months old daughter. You locked everyone of us. At least bacche pe to rahem karte (take pity on the children). There is no food for my daughter... they didn't let me get my stroller. How cruel you guys are?" tweeted one of the passengers Gouri Shankar Dash, tagging Civil Aviation Minister Hardeep Singh Puri.
"Just came from London AI112, it's absolutely maniac at Delhi Airport. Asking us to go for institutional quarantine even with Negative PCR test. Didn't mention this on your SOP," another passenger Harprit Takkar tweeted with videos of the chaos at the Delhi airport, tagging Puri and Air India.
"There is total chaos right now. We are inside a lounge... lots of security staff outside. We are being treated like we are in a cage... and hotels are trying to make this a business by offering deals for quarantine. We took our flight yesterday... there were no such guidelines," Sourav Dutta, a stranded AI-112 flyer told NDTV.
The Arvind Kejriwal-led Delhi government had decided on Friday morning that "as a matter of abundant precaution in view of the increased transmissibility of the new variant (of the coronavirus), it is decided that all travellers coming from the United Kingdom (UK) to India would be mandatorily subjected to self-paid RT-PCR tests on arrival at the airport. Those who are found positive shall be isolated in an institutional isolation facility in a separate (isolation) unit as per existing laid-down protocol."
The crux of the problem, however, lay in what followed in the Delhi government order, which pretty aptly, had been highlighted. "Those who are found negative shall be kept in compulsory institutional quarantine for a period of 7 days followed by 7 days of home quarantine," the order said.
Delhi Chief Minister Kejriwal tweeted the order at 2.30 pm on Friday, saying, "To protect Delhiites from exposure to virus from UK, Del govt takes imp decisions."
The Delhi government's decision came after Kejriwal had requested the Centre to extend the UK flight ban till January 31 “in view of extremely serious COVID situation in UK”. Delhi Health Minister Satyender Jain had made a similar appeal to his counterpart in the Union government Harsh Vardhan. “The ban on UK flights should be extended to 31st January, 2021 as UK is bearing all time high surge in cases and death,” Jain had tweeted.
The Delhi government's decision led to it being showered with brickbats with people wondering if a corona-negative report means anything at all to the Kejriwal government. The anger was particularly intense also because these draconian measures were not part of the standard operating procedures (SOPs) issued by the government of India on January 1 as part of the graded resumption of flights to and from the UK, which were temporarily suspended on December 21, 2020, in the wake of the detection of a new and more infectious strain of the coronavirus in the UK.
Most importantly, these measures by the Delhi government were thrust upon the AI-112 flyers without notice. When the flight had departed from London at 9.39 pm local time on Thursday (January 7), the prevalent rules regarding Covid-19 tests were in line with those in the Centre's SOP. This meant that passengers testing negative would have been allowed to go home. However, new conditions were added by the Delhi authorities while AI-112 was in the air, and when it landed at 10.30 am, none of the passengers was prepared to undergo institutional quarantine.
The Union government restarted flights from India to the UK on January 6, and from the UK to India on January 8. Thirty flights -- 15 flights each by Indian and UK carriers -- were envisaged per week, and this schedule was to stay in place till January 23. AI-112 was the first flight from London after the resumption of flights between the two countries.
According to the SOP issued by the Union government, 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.
"Passengers testing positive shall be isolated in an institutional isolation facility in a separate (isolation) unit coordinated by the respective state health authorities. They would earmark specific facilities for such isolation and treatment and take necessary action to send the positive samples to Indian SARS-CoV-2 Genomics Consortium (INSACOG) labs," the SOP said.
However, significantly, it added that those found negative in RT-PCR tests at the airport would be allowed to leave, but advised 14 days' home quarantine and monitored by the concerned state/district Integrated Disease Surveillance Programme (IDSP).
Delhi airport tweeted at 6.34 pm on January 8 an advisory with the new quarantine rules in Delhi for UK passengers. The cost of the test and lounge at the airport was given as Rs 3,400 per passenger. The advisory added that the passengers may have to wait 10 hours to get the test results, thereby adding to the passengers' woes.
Former high-ranking Vistara official Sanjiv Kapoor lambasted the Kejriwal government. "Mr Kejriwal, you have every right to make rules to protect Delhi. However we need to be reasonable about it. Give at least a day's notice. You cannot apply it after the fact to those who are already on their way based on earlier announced SOP, and test negative on arrival," Kapoor tweeted.
"This creates a health and safety issue to those that arrived on the first flight. Stuck in the airport for hours. Chaos with last minute rules changes. Families with small children. Pregnant women too. Notice MUST be given. They came basis the rules that were earlier announced," he added. Kapoor pointed out that the airline/airport authorities refused to produce a circular regarding the new quarantine rules.
Air India tweeted the Delhi government's order about new quarantine rules at 7.26 pm on January 8. The airline added that it had "reached out" to the passengers before the flight took off from the London-Heathrow Airport, and announcements were made during the flight too. It pointed out that around 20 passengers had opted out on being informed of the new quarantine rules in Delhi by its team in London.
The ministry of civil aviation (MoCA), however, said that the new quarantine rules were part of a decision by the Delhi government and states had the right to introduce additional measures to control the spread of the coronavirus, according to the existing guidelines, The Indian Express reported. The MoCA added that whatever best could be done at the airport to facilitate the passengers was being done.
However, despite claims, what emerged from this episode was terrible official apathy with complete disregard to the well-being of air travellers, even those who needed special care.
(Cover image -- Agitated passengers from UK at the Delhi airport. Source: Twitter/@HarpritTakkar)