India-UK flights: India on Monday joined the growing list of countries that have suspended passenger flight operations to and from the United Kingdom after a new mutant variant of SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes Covid-19 was discovered to be more infectious. The UK authorities have said the new strand of coronavirus is responsible for 70 percent of all new cases in the country forcing it to impose a stricter lockdown.

In response, the Ministry of Civil Aviation in India suspended flight operations to and from the UK till December 31, 2020. Speaking to India Today, Civil Aviation Minister Hardeep Singh Puri said, “We are taking no chances. We had to take this decision as a precautionary step. This has come on the basis of advice from our health experts.”

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All passengers coming from the UK until the temporary suspension comes into effect at midnight Tuesday-Wednesday will be subjected to mandatory RT-PCR tests upon arrival in India, Hardeep Puri said. 

“The earlier procedure of uploading RT-PCR reports of tests undertaken within 72 hours, will no longer be valid because if there’s a new strain, and a passenger has picked up the virus in the period between 72 hours and now, no purpose will be served with the other report,” he clarified.

Earlier, a message posted by the ministry’s official Twitter handle said, “Considering the prevailing situation in the UK. Govt of India has decided that all flights originating from the UK to India to be suspended till 31st December 2020 (23.59 hours).”

“This suspension [of flight operation] will start with effect from 23.59 hours, 22nd December 2020. Consequently, flights from India to the UK shall stand temporarily suspended during the above mentioned period,” it said.

This decision does not apply to international all-cargo operations and flights specifically approved by the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA), said the civil aviation regulator.

The announcement comes following a letter written by Union Health and Family Welfare Secretary Rajesh Bhushan to his counterpart in the civil aviation ministry, Pradeep Kharola advising him to suspend flight operations to and from the UK.

“India has been seeing a sustained decline in the number of fresh Covid-19 cases for over 2.5 months now, accompanied by a decline in the number of deaths. In this scenario, any interjection of a Sars-CoV-2 variant virus through passengers with air travel history could pose critical risks for pandemic management in India,” Bhushan wrote.

Hardeep Puri said the civil aviation ministry will review the situation in a few days’ time to see if the suspension of flight operations needs to continue or it can be dispensed with.

For passengers, who already have booked to fly to or from the UK during the period of flight suspension, they will have to await the reopening of the air bubble, Hardeep Puri said.

Air bubble refers to the bilateral arrangements that India has made with various countries including the UK after resuming flight operations in the post-Covid-19 period.

Meanwhile, the DGCA has also asked airlines operating flights between India and other countries, to ensure they don’t board any passengers coming from the United Kingdom.

Speaking of the impact on the airline industry, Hardeep Puri said, “This temporary suspension won’t impact international civil aviation or stocks et cetera. In fact, many of them are looking much better than (how they were) a few months ago. As for the domestic industry, it is operating up to 80 percent capacity. I have no doubt that we will reach pre-COVID-19 levels by end of the year or a week or two after that.”

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