India has suspended all passenger flights connecting to the United Kingdom from Wednesday till December 31 in the wake of the emergence of a mutated variant of the coronavirus there, joining several other countries that have imposed a similar flight ban.
Moreover, passengers coming from the UK through flights till Tuesday midnight would be tested for COVID-19 on arrival at airports "as a measure of abundant precaution", the civil aviation ministry said on Monday.
A number of countries like Canada, Turkey, Belgium, Italy and Israel have banned flights from the UK as the British government warned that the potent new strain of the virus was "out of control" and imposed a stringent new stay-at-home lockdown from Sunday.
Civil aviation minister Hardeep Singh Puri said on Twitter that the passengers who are found COVID-19-positive would be sent for institutional quarantine set up by states or union territories.
"Those found negative should be advised to isolate at home for seven days and will be medically monitored by states/UTs," Puri added.
Till date, the rules stated that if an international passenger had a COVID-19-negative certificate from a test done 72 hours prior to the journey, he or she need not undergo a COVID-19 test again on arrival at the Indian airport.
Earlier during the day, Union health secretary Rajesh Bhushan wrote to Union civil aviation ministry secretary Pradeep Singh Kharola recommending suspension of all flights originating from the UK into India till December 31.
"As you are aware India has been seeing a sustained decline in the number of fresh COVID-19 cases for over two-and-a-half months now accompanied by a decline in the number of deaths," Bhushan stated.
"In this scenario, any interjection of a SARS-CoV-2 variant virus through passengers with a travel history could pose a critical risk for pandemic management in India," he added.
Bhushan recommended mandatory COVID-19 tests at airports for passengers coming from the UK, adding that the state governments should create separate desks at airports to facilitate the entire process.
Aviation regulator Directorate General of Civil Aviation on Monday said all airlines must ensure that passengers travelling from the UK do not board their flights from anywhere outside the UK to come to India during the suspension period.
The regulator said the aforementioned suspension would not be applicable on cargo flights.
The civil aviation ministry tweeted: "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 will start after 11.59 PM of December 22 and, consequently, flights from India to the UK shall also stand temporarily suspended during the period, it added.
"As a measure of abundant precaution, passengers arriving from the UK in all transit flights (flights that have taken off or flights which are reaching India before 22nd Dec at 23.59 hrs) should be subject to mandatory RT-PCR test on arrival at the airports concerned," it mentioned.
Vistara spokesperson said the airline will comply with the government's order to suspend UK flights.
"To minimize inconvenience to our customers, we will enable one-time free-of-charge rescheduling of affected bookings to any date until 31 December 2021," the spokesperson noted.
For the last few months, Vistara, Air India, British Airways and Virgin Atlantic have been operating a limited number of direct special flights between India and the UK under the bilateral air bubble arrangement between the two nations.
While all scheduled international passenger flights have been suspended in India since March 23 due to the coronavirus pandemic, special flights have been operating under the Vande Bharat mission since May and under air bubble arrangements since July.
India has formed air bubble arrangements with more than 22 countries, including the UK. Under an air bubble agreement between two nations, airlines of both countries can operate special flights between their territories with certain restrictions.
Nishant Pitti, Co-founder and CEO of EaseMyTrip.com, said the government's decision to suspend flights to and from the UK till the year-end would have a negligible impact on tourist traffic.
"Due to the current environment of COVID-19 and the quarantine rules and off-season, tourism to the UK in any case had not picked up. We had foreseen an increase in international tourism only in the summer of 2021 with normalcy by the winter of 2021," he said.
On this matter, British Airways said it is contacting customers whose flights are cancelled to offer refunds and it will also "encourage customers who wish to change their booking to do so via http://ba.com, where they can also request a voucher for future travel if their flight continues to operate.
Virgin Atlantic said in a statement that its teams are in the process of reviewing its flying programme and the airline will inform customers if their travel plans are affected.
"If we cancel a customer's flight, we'll be in touch and they will have the option to rebook on a new date and destination, with a name(s) change, all the way until 31 December 2022, or request a refund," it added.