As cases of the omicron variant of the coronavirus popped up in countries on opposite sides of the world Sunday, many governments have rushed to close their borders. While scientists cautioned that it's not clear if the new variant is more alarming than other versions of the virus, the emergence of the new strain, which was first reported in South Africa, has also the Indian government scrambling and reviewing its travel plans. The decision to resume international travel from December 15 is also set for review.
The Omicron variant was identified days ago by researchers in South Africa, and much is still not known about it, including whether it is more contagious, more likely to cause serious illness or more able to evade the protection of vaccines.
The past two waves wreaking havoc on India's economy and healthcare infrastructure, however, seem to have made the government more vigilant. On Sunday, a high-level meeting was held to review existing Covid-19 protocols for travellers. While India has not put a blanket ban on international travel, the government has revised its travel norms for foreign travellers.
What are the new travel rules for travellers to India?
As per the letter issued to states by the Union Health Ministry on Friday, the RT-PCR test is mandatory for all incoming travellers who do not have a vaccination certificate
According to the new government-revised norms, any individual coming from "at-risk" countries has to follow a 7-day home quarantine norm even if his RT-PCR report is negative. Those who are found to be positive will be treated separately in accordance with standard protocol.
Along with the Covid test result, passengers also need a declaration of authenticity of the Covid test report. As per government protocols, presenting manipulated reports can lead to criminal prosecution.
As of Sunday, nine countries were classified as 'at-risk following worldwide concern about a new variant of coronavirus, designated as Omicron.
The government also said that 5 per cent of the passengers who were travelling from countries not classified as "at-risk" will also be subjected to random testing. While the civil aviation ministry will bear the cost of random testing, individuals from affected nations are supposed to pay for the Covid-19 tests on their own upon arrival.
Travellers will also have to fill out self-declarative forms on the online Air Suvidha portal revealing their travel history over the past two weeks.
Experts, however, feel that institutional quarantine should be made mandatory for every person coming from abroad as home quarantine is often not observed strictly. Yet others including states and experts have argued for a temporary freeze on entry of international travellers like Japan and Israel.
However, in India, different states have adopted their own policies toward reviewing and reimposing travel restrictions. Several states have brought in rules for more rigid surveillance of visitors from these nations along with the mandatory guidelines by the union government.
Passengers from countries categorized as `at risk' by the Union Health Ministry will have to undergo Covid-19 tests upon arrival in Gujarat if they are not fully vaccinated. Those who are fully vaccinated will also be screened at the airport and allowed to proceed if they do not show any symptoms of the infections.
The health department of UP issued an advisory on Sunday asking chief medical officers across the state to keep a sharp eye on incoming travellers from countries where the variant have been reported. The advisory also stressed the importance of contact tracing.
Maharashtra government issued fresh restrictions and rules for domestic and international travellers on Saturday. International travellers coming from "at-risk" countries will follow union-government mandated protocols while domestic travellers need to either be fully vaccinated or carry an RT-PCR test valid for 72 hours.
The Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) began contacting passengers who arrived in the city from the countries of concern including South Africa over the last 15 days. These include a total of 465 people. Travellers will also have to reveal their travel history for the past 15 days upon arrival.
Karnataka has mandated Covid-19 tests for all international travellers and said that it will only allow international passengers to leave in case of a negative test report. Those testing positive will be quarantined. It has also asked the centre to restrict international travellers from all countries.
Kerala's health minister Veena George assured that a strict watch will be kept for seven days on incoming international travellers. She added that travellers coming from affected nations will have to retake an RT-PCR test again upon arrival to the state despite having negative test reports.
Call for international travel ban
Several states and UTs have raised demands for a complete ban on international flights. Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal and Jharkhand Health Minister Banna Gupta were among the few who demanded a temporary ban on international travel in wale of the virus. States like Bihar, West Bengal amd Punjab are yet to issue new travel advisories.
What other nations are doing
Many countries have moved to tighten their borders after the new omicron variant of the coronavirus was found in a number of nations.
Despite limited information on the virus, several countries have rushed to act, reflecting anxiety about anything that could prolong the pandemic that has killed more than 5 million people.
As many as 20 nations have banned travel from South Africa while some nations have put a travel ban on all foreign travellers
Japan, for instance, announced Monday it will suspend entry of all foreign visitors from around the world. The decision means Japan will restore border controls that it eased earlier this month for short-term business visitors, foreign students and workers.
It is not alone. Israel has also decided to bar entry to foreigners, and Morocco said it would suspend all incoming flights for two weeks starting Monday — among the most drastic of a growing raft of travel curbs being imposed by nations around the world as they scrambled to slow the variant's spread.
Scientists in several places — from Hong Kong to Europe to North America — have confirmed its presence. The Netherlands reported 13 omicron cases on Sunday, and both Canada and Australia each found two.
Noting that the variant has already been detected in many countries and that closing borders often have limited effect, the World Health Organization called for frontiers to remain open.
How South Africa is responding to the virus
South Africa will remain on the lowest 'Level One' of its five-level lockdown strategy to fight the Covid-19 pandemic despite the global panic around the detection of the Omicron variant in the country, President Cyril Ramaphosa has announced .
Ramaphosa also called on more than 20 countries that have imposed travel bans to and from South Africa and its neighbours to immediately end the ban to avoid further harm to the economies of these countries, which have already been battered by the pandemic.