Union Health Minister Dr Harsh Vardhan assures people that the government has the situation under control and ‘there is no need to panic’; experts believe that current vaccines should be effective against the new strain.

The Ministry of Civil Aviation on Monday banned all flights from the UK till 31 December 31 in the wake of a new fast-spreading strain of novel coronavirus in that country. The ban will start from Wednesday and all passengers arriving from the UK before then will be tested on arrival at airports.

“Considering the prevailing situation in UK, the Government of India has decided that all flights originating from UK to India to be suspended till 31st December,” said the Aviation Ministry after a joint monitoring group on Covid-19 met on Monday morning to discuss the mutant coronavirus that has spread rapidly in the UK.

It added that as a measure of abundant precaution, passengers arriving from the UK in all transit flights should be subjected to mandatory RT-PCR test on arrival at the airports in India. Those who test positive will be sent to institutional quarantine while the rest will be asked to home-isolate for seven days.

Union Health Secretary Rajesh Bhushan said that the new variant had an unusually large number of genetic changes and the development “calls for enhanced epidemiological surveillance, enhanced containment” and other measures to effectively tackle the challenge.

“India has been seeing a sustained decline in the number of fresh Covid-19 cases for over two 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,” he said.

Union Health Minister Dr Harsh Vardhan assured people that the government has the situation under control and “there is no need to panic”. He said on Monday, “Don’t get hassled with imaginary situations… The government is fully alert.”

Though not much is known about the strain, experts believe that current vaccines should be effective against it. Indian-American physician Vivek Murthy, US President-elect Joe Biden’s pick for Surgeon General, has said there is no evidence to suggest that a new and more contagious coronavirus variant reported in the UK is any deadlier. “This news from the UK appears to be about a new strain of the virus that’s more transmissible, more contagious than the virus we’ve seen prior to this,” he said. “While it seems to be more transmissible, we do not have evidence yet that this is a more deadly virus to an individual who acquires it,” Dr Murthy told NBC News on Sunday.

Meanwhile, there had been several calls to ban flights from the UK. Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal tweeted this Monday morning: “New mutation of corona virus has emerged in UK, which is a super-spreader. I urge central government to ban all flights from UK immediately.”

The UK is one of 23 countries that India shares an “air bubble” with; the country is home to a huge Indian diaspora and several flights per day take hundreds of people between London and New Delhi and London and Mumbai.

The mutant virus was first detected in southeast England in September. It is quickly becoming the dominant strain in London and other parts of the UK, and has led to surging infection numbers and toughest levels of restrictions on some 18 million Britons.

Maharashtra on Monday imposed an 11 pm to 6 am night curfew till 5 January in Mumbai and other cities, and announced new quarantine rules for arrivals from the Europe and West Asia, in view of a fast-spreading strain of coronavirus that has emerged in the UK.

Passengers from European or West Asian nations will be sent to 14-day institutional quarantine, and all others must home-isolate for a similar period, the Maharashtra government said on Monday evening.

Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation Commissioner told news agency PTI that around 1,000 people are expected to arrive in five flights landing till midnight 22 December, when the centre’s ban on incoming flights from the UK takes effect.

Meanwhile, during the period of the night curfew, essential services, like supply of vegetables and milk, will remain unaffected. However, no more than five people can assemble at a given place in this time.

Several countries have suspended flights from the UK over the new strain, believed to be 70 per cent more infectious. British Health Secretary Matt Hancock had earlier claimed that “the new variant is out of control”.