New COVID strain: Flights from SA, Aus, European nations on govt radar

Steps are being taken to ensure that contact tracing measures are implemented by all state governments in the case of Australia, and European countries like the Netherlands and Denmark where "VUI-202012/01" is suspected to have sneaked in from the UK

The XE variant is a combination of two prevalent Omicron variants – BA1 and BA2 | Representational Photo: iStock

Having banned flights from the UK, the Union government is keeping a close watch on South Africa, Australia, Netherlands and Denmark to ensure that new variants of COVID-19 are blocked effectively.

Efforts are on to monitor all international passengers arriving at Indian airports to ensure that people who have travelled recently to the UK are subjected to safeguard protocols even if they arrive in India from other countries. While more than three dozen countries have suspended flights to the UK, a number of countries have not halted flights from British airports.

Apart from tracing travel history and thoroughly implementing ICMR (Indian Council for Medical Research) protocol for passengers who could be potential carriers of the mutated COVID-19 strain reported in the UK, the authorities concerned have also cautioned against any laxity in handling travellers from South Africa where a different strain of the contagious virus has been reported.

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Similarly, steps are being taken to ensure that contact tracing measures are implemented by all state governments in the case of Australia, and European countries like the Netherlands and Denmark where “VUI-202012/01” is suspected to have sneaked in from the UK.

GoM closely monitoring

Therefore, the Group of Ministers (GoM) set up by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to work out India’s response to COVID-19 is closely monitoring safeguard measures at all international airports in the country and also the passengers transiting to other airports.

Apart from RT-PCR tests to check for the presence of coronavirus infection, state governments have been asked to track these passengers for two weeks and also monitor all those who come in contact with them. This is based on the history of India’s COVID-19 exposure that was sparked off on account of people travelling to India from China or countries where COVID-19 had already spread from China.

Related News: India bans all UK flights during Dec 23-31 over new COVID strain

The other issue that is keeping decision-makers busy is the situation after December 31 when the UK flight ban comes to an end.

“We will watch the situation continuously and take a decision before the New Year,” said a top civil aviation ministry official. “As of now there is no move to extend the ban or bar flights from other destinations, but the situation is under constant watch,” he added.

Apart from the health ministry, the GoM has representation from the home ministry, railways, civil aviation ministry and the PMO. Experts from ICMR and other scientific institutions also provide their inputs.

The current aim is to prevent another wave of coronavirus spread and the need to continue containment efforts effectively has been communicated to all government departments concerned, the official said. The ban on flights from the UK may cause inconvenience to Indians planning to return to India but we cannot take chances at this point, he added while stressing that the step was due to abundant caution that is necessary at this point.

Winter worries

While the new infection numbers have been coming down recently, there is no room for lowering the guard. In a matter of a couple of weeks, COVID-19 has the potential to undo all the hard work done till now, officials have been cautioned. There is also the fear that cold winter weather in north India and Christmas-New Year-Sankaranthi festivities may add fuel to the fire. Therefore, the home ministry is not planning any further relaxation at this point and has been urging states to strictly implement social distancing; and other basic preventive measures like use of face masks, hand sanitiser and washing of hands.

In view of the scare caused by the UK mutation of COVID, the government also plans to move cautiously in opening up more railway services and approvals granted to domestic airlines to operate additional capacity. States will be asked to be cautious in reopening of educational institutions and giving permission for sports events. There will no letup till the spread of COVID-19 is contained completely and this is expected once vaccination picks up, the official said.

Meanwhile, 20 passengers including six on Monday’s London-Delhi Air India flight, who landed in India from the UK in the last few days, have tested COVID-19 positive, and the samples have been sent to National Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) in Delhi and Pune’s National Institute of Virology (NIV) as per the government’s new SOP.

“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. Necessary action to send the samples to National Institute of Virology (NIV), Pune or any other appropriate lab for genomic sequencing will be initiated at the facility level,” the Union health ministry had said while issuing new Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) for UK travellers.