The central government on Sunday decided to review the decision on resuming scheduled commercial international passenger services amid a worldwide alert on the risk posed by the new coronavirus variant of concern, Omicron.
It also issued fresh guidelines on international arrivals. The guidelines, which will come into effect from December 1, mandate submitting 14 days travel details and uploading a negative RT-PCR test report on the Air Suvidha portal before the journey. The health ministry also asked travellers from countries ‘at risk' to take Covid test post-arrival and wait for results at airport. If they test negative, they will undergo home quarantine for 7 days and re-test on the 8th day.
The Centre and states held high-level meetings and updated advisories on health measures, as more countries reported cases of Omicron infection and imposed stringent measures to control the outbreak.
The government will also review standard operating procedures on testing and surveillance of incoming international passengers, especially from the countries in the “at risk” category.
The Union health ministry has asked states to ramp up health infrastructure, testing, and genome sequencing activities, among a host of other steps, in its second advisory since the variant was announced. States themselves are taking proactive measures to avoid a repeat of the deadly second wave — many are stocking up their oxygen and medicine supplies to prepare for the worst.
The home ministry on Sunday held an urgent meeting, a day after a high-level review by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the new highly mutated variant. The PM had asked officials to review the lifting of international travel restrictions.
The Sunday meeting -- chaired by home secretary Ajay Bhalla -- decided to review the decision on resuming scheduled commercial international passenger services. It was attended by V K Paul, member-health, NITI Aayog, Vijay Raghavan, principal scientific adviser to the prime minister, and senior officers from health, civil aviation and other ministries.
On November 26, the government announced the resumption of scheduled international commercial flights from December 15, after a gap of over 20 months.
A spokesperson of the home ministry said in a tweet: “The overall global situation in the wake of Omicron virus was comprehensively reviewed. Various preventive measures in place and to be further strengthened were discussed.”
“The strengthening and intensification of genomic surveillance for variants through the INSACOG (Indian SARS-CoV-2 Consortium on Genomics) network was agreed upon with a focus on sampling and whole genome sequencing of international passengers, especially from those countries where the Omicron variant has been detected,” a government statement said.
Airport and port health officials would also be sensitised for strict supervision of testing protocol at airports and ports.
The Omicron variant -- found first in South Africa -- has multiple mutations and led to a rapid spike in cases in the Gauteng province of the country. Besides South Africa, the variant has been detected in at least eight countries/regions, including the UK, Hong Kong, Israel, Australia, and the Netherlands.
The new variant has reportedly got over 30 mutations in the spike protein region, giving it the potential to develop an immunoescape mechanism, and thus the efficacy of vaccines against it needs to be evaluated critically, according to AIIMS chief Dr Randeep Guelria.
Health ministry’s advisory to states
The Centre has directed all states to ramp up health infrastructure, enhance testing, and surveillance in light of the Omicron variant.
In a letter to chief secretaries of all the states, it has asked them to ensure that there is no delay in providing care. States have been told to plan and strengthen the availability of trained manpower, infrastructure, logistics, and procurement.
“There shall be no compromise in providing prompt quality treatment to patients. States are requested to optimally utilise the financial support provided by the government,” Rajesh Bhushan, health secretary, said in the letter.
The government has also asked states to operationalise ample testing infrastructure to tackle any surge due to this mutated virus. Recently, the health ministry had asked states to increase testing after a fall in the proportion of RT-PCR tests in some states. The Centre has also cautioned states that in the absence of sufficient testing, it is extremely difficult to determine the true level of infection spread.
“States must significantly increase sampling from the general population or community for genome sequencing by sending these samples to the INSACOG lab network,” Bhushan said.
The health ministry has reiterated that it is essential that the disease surveillance network in the country is geared up for rigorous follow up of all international travelers from all countries, especially countries designated as “At Risk”."
The “at-risk” nations include the UK, South Africa, Brazil, Bangladesh, Botswana, China, Mauritius, New Zealand, Zimbabwe, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Israel.