“State-specific protocols”, as demanded by the Kerala government, cannot be implemented for bringing back expatriates from foreign countries, said Union Minister of State for External Affairs V Muraleedharan on Thursday (June 25).
However, the ministry itself appreciated the state government later for its “pragmatic approach” in bringing back expatriates and said the effort will “minimise the chances of transmission” of the coronavirus.
Muraleedharan, the Rajya Sabha MP from Maharashtra, earlier in the day said all Vande Bharat Mission (VBM) flights will have to follow the same standard operating procedure (SOP) while bringing back expatriates.
The Kerala government, which had made pre-flight COVID-19 testing mandatory for those travelling from abroad, laid down certain guidelines on Wednesday (June 24) to bring back those stranded, especially from the Gulf countries, taking into account country-specific situations.
The government order on COVID-19 testing was to come into effect from Thursday and Kerala had sought the Centres help for providing testing facilities in the host countries, before the expatriates boarded the flights to the southern state.
“The VBM flights carrying expatriates to India will follow the same SOP and state-specific protocols cannot be implemented. The ministry has informed the Kerala government about the same,” Muraleedharan said.
He said according to the SOP, any expatriate who comes from abroad will undergo all tests that are being conducted in those countries in accordance with the SOP there. The Union minister said the testing protocol of each country will be applicable and the MEA is bound to implement those.
“Rest of the guidelines and restrictions suggested by Kerala is impractical for the external affairs ministry and we have informed the same to the state,” he told reporters.
However, late in the evening, the Consular, Passport and Visa and Overseas Indian Affairs Secretary of the Ministry of External Affairs, Sanjay Bhattacharyya, sent a letter of appreciation to Kerala Chief Secretary Vishwas Mehta.
“I must compliment the government of Kerala for its pragmatic approach in trying to contain the spread of the virus. The measures proposed by you of wearing N95 masks, face shields, hand gloves etc. will minimise the chances of transmission,” the letter said. It also said the Kerala government may discuss the special requirements directly with the airlines concerned for their cooperation.
“We shall share your approach with our Ambassadors in the Gulf. This would greatly facilitate a smooth flow of Indians back home by VBM flights,” Bhattacharyya said.
According to the state government’s order, apart from carrying a COVID-19 negative certificate, the passengers must wear N95 masks, face shields, and gloves. It also said the passengers from certain countries, where there are no testing facilities, must wear personal protective equipment (PPE) while flying into the state.
Muraleedharan said the Centre wants to bring back all those who wish to return and the guidelines will remain common for all the states.
“The chief minister had earlier said testing was not necessary as it was not possible even after the central government had taken efforts. The Centre has not tried to implement what Kerala has said. We told them that the efforts were futile and the Centre is unable to interfere in the health protocols of other countries,” he said.
The Union minister criticised the Kerala government for the less number of COVID-19 tests taking place in the state. The state unit of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had also lashed out at the Kerala government and raised questions as regards how PPE kits will be made available to the passengers.
The state government had earlier informed that it was ready to provide the kits and testing materials if required.