The discovery of a new Covid variant, ‘Omicron’ which the World Health Organization says has the potential to spark infection surges around the globe, has once again forced the Central government to heighten screening of arriving international passengers.
To this end, the Central government has issued new rules for international travellers entering India in order to contain the spread of the new variant.
The State governments of Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh have come out with their own rules with regard to the entry of international passengers.
Central government guidelines
The Central government has categorised international passengers arriving in India into two groups — from ‘at-risk and ‘not-at-risk’ countries — and has issued rules accordingly.
Which countries have been categorised as at risk?
The Central government has classified all European countries, including the UK and 10 other countries — South Africa, Brazil, Botswana, China, Mauritius, New Zealand, Zimbabwe, Singapore, Hong Kong and Israel — as ‘at-risk’ countries, as they have reported a surge in Covid-19 cases in the past few weeks and have also reported cases of the new Omicron virus.
The Central government is also constantly monitoring the spread of the Omicron variant and is expected to update the list of countries in the ‘at-risk’ category as the severity of cases rises.
What are the rules for passengers arriving from ‘at-risk’ countries?
The new travel curbs came into effect on December 1 and list precautionary measures (from the pre-flight to the post-arrival stage for an international traveller) to contain the spread of the Omicron variant in India.
All international passengers must submit 14 days’ travel history and upload negative Covid test results on the Air Suvidha portal.
All travelers coming from these countries will have to undergo an RT-PCR test on arrival in India. Such travellers will be required to wait for their test results at the airport of arrival before leaving or taking a connecting flight.
If they test negative, they will have to be home-quarantined for seven days and again get tested on the eighth day.
If they still test negative, they will be advised to self-monitor their health for another week.
If they test positive, they will be sent to a separate isolation facility and treated there, as per standard protocol, including contact tracing..
Meanwhile, their Covid-19 test sample will be sent for genome sequencing. An extra-careful isolation and treatment protocol will be followed if they test positive for the Omicron variant.
The contacts of positive cases are to be kept under institutional quarantine or home quarantine, monitored strictly by the concerned State Government, as per protocol.
A passenger can exit the airport or take a connecting flight for the final destination once a negative report is received. He/She need not wait for the reports of other co-passengers.
What are the rules for passengers arriving from ‘not-at-risk’ countries?
Passengers arriving from countries that are not ‘at-risk’ will also need to submit 14 days’ travel history and upload their Covid test results on the Air Suvidha portal. The new travel guidelines are effective from December 1, 2021.
A random 2 percent sample will be collected from passengers arriving from ‘not-at-risk’ countries.
Travellers undergoing random sampling may give their samples and be allowed to leave.
Airlines/Airports will coordinate with the officials of State/UT Governments to select the passengers for random sampling.
Post-arrival testing can be exempted for a passenger from a not-at-risk country transiting through an at-risk country
How long will passengers have to wait at airports for their Covid-19 tests?
At the moment all international airports in India offer passengers the option of taking two Covid-19 tests: a Rapid PCR test, which costs, on an average, around Rs 4,000, and an RT-PCR test, which costs Rs 500-900 at the airports.
What passengers from ‘at-risk’ countries can expect
All passengers arriving from ‘at-risk’ countries will have to wait at airports for more than three to four hours, on average, to complete testing procedures.
The result of the Rapid-PCR test offered at airports takes about two hours to come in, while the RT-PCR result takes 5-6 hours.
Passengers will not be allowed to leave the airport unless their test results come in.
Passengers arriving from ‘not-at-risk’ countries:
While passengers arriving from ‘’not-at-risk’ countries will not have to undergo mandatory testing upon arrival, if selected for ‘random testing’ at the airport, the passengers will be allowed to leave the airport before their results come out.
The Central government is expected to have a discussion with all State governments on December 2 to discuss uniform rules for the arrival of international passengers.
At the moment Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh have come out with their guidelines for international passengers:
Rules for Maharashtra:
The government of Maharashtra has made it mandatory for all international travellers, irrespective of country of origin, arriving at the Mumbai airport to undergo Covid-19 RT-PCR tests.
It has also called for a mandatory 14-day home quarantine for all international passengers, even if their RT-PCR test result upon arrival is negative.
The State government has also called for mandatory RT-PCR tests for passengers planning to undertake connecting flights after disembarking at Mumbai. Further travel is subject to a negative RT-PCR result.
The State has also asked all passengers coming to Maharashtra from other States to carry negative RT-PCR reports. The tests should have been conducted within 48 hours of their journey.
Rules for Uttar Pradesh:
The Uttar Pradesh government on December 2 announced a fresh set of restrictions for travellers coming into the State.
All international travellers entering UP will have to undergo thermal scanning.
In addition, any travellers from at-risk countries who test positive for Covid-19 on arrival will be isolated at a designated isolation centre.
Their samples will be sent for genome sequencing to confirm if they are infected with the Omicron variant.
The order further stated that all travellers who test positive will be treated at a government facility and their contacts will be traced.
The UP government also ordered that all railway and bus stations in the State have a medical team deployed for Covid testing and sample collection for further testing if required.
What kind of RT-PCR tests have been approved by ICMR at airports?
ICMR has approved the following systems for molecular testing of SARS-CoV-2:
Open system RTPCR
Abbott ID Now
Accula by Thermofisher
All the labs that conduct tests have to follow ICMR/ MoHFW guidelines to ensure genome sequencing of all positive cases.
Airports have been directed by the Civil Aviation Ministry to facilitate RT-PCR testing of passengers by extending the required facilities and providing logistics.
More about Omicron
The Omicron variant has been called a variant of concern by WHO based on studies that shows it has several mutations. Still a lot of research is underway to evaluate its transmissibility, severity and reinfection risk. The Omicron variant has been detected in several regions of the world. WHO reports that the likelihood of the Omicron variant spreading further globally is high. It is not currently known if the Omicron variant is more or less severe than other strains of COVID-19, including Delta. Studies are ongoing and this information will be updated as it becomes available. It is not yet clear whether Omicron can spread more easily from person to person compared to other variants, such as Delta. However, being vaccinated and taking precautions such as avoiding crowded spaces, keeping your distance from others and wearing a mask are critical in helping to prevent the spread of COVID-19, and we know these actions have been effective against other variants. Researchers are looking into any potential impact the Omicron variant has on the effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines. Although information is still limited, WHO believes it is a reasonable assumption that the currently available vaccines offer some protection against severe disease and death. It is also important to be vaccinated to protect against the other widely circulating variants, such as the Delta one. When it’s your turn, make sure to get vaccinated. If your vaccination involves two doses, it’s important to receive both in order to have the maximum protection. According to WHO, early evidence suggests that people who have previously had COVID-19 could be reinfected more easily with Omicron, in comparison to other variants of concern. Information is still limited though and we will share updates as it becomes available. Source: UNICEF
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