In the light of the risk posed by heavily-mutated Omicron coronavirus variant, the Union health ministry on Sunday (28 November) revised the guidelines for international passengers, and issued an advisory to the States to ramp up health infrastructure.
The new guidelines, coming into effect from 1 December 2021 mandate all international passengers entering India to submit 14-day travel details and upload a negative RT-PCR test report on the "Air Suvidha" portal before the journey.
The RT-PCR test should have been conducted within 72 hours prior to the flight.
In a release issued after a meeting chaired by Home Secretary Ajay Bhalla, the government said it would review “the decision on effective date of resumption of scheduled commercial international passengers service as per evolving global scenario while keeping a closer watch on emerging pandemic situation within the country”.
The Omicron variant is likely to spread internationally and poses a very high risk of infection surges that could have “severe consequences” in some places, the World Health Organization (WHO) said on Monday.
“Omicron has an unprecedented number of spike mutations, some of which are concerning for their potential impact on the trajectory of the pandemic. The overall global risk related to the new variant is assessed as very high,” it said.
In the light of the threat, the Ministry of Health said in the guidelines that travellers from “countries at-risk” will need to take a Covid-19 test after their arrival in India and wait for results at the airport itself.
On the other hand, travellers from countries not considered “at risk”, after arrival in India, will be allowed to leave the airport and must self-monitor their health for the next 14 days.
Travellers from “countries at-risk”, if tested negative, will have to undergo home quarantine for seven days followed by a re-test on the eighth day.
The “countries at-risk” include the United Kingdom, South Africa, Brazil, Bangladesh, Botswana, China, Mauritius, New Zealand, Zimbabwe, Singapore, Hong Kong and Israel.
“On arrival, the passengers found to be symptomatic during screening shall be immediately isolated and taken to medical facility as per protocol. If tested positive, their contacts shall be identified and managed as per laid down protocol,” the guidelines say, reports The Hindu.
The contacts of the suspect cases include the co-passengers seated in the same row, three rows in front and three rows behind along with the airplane cabin crew.
All the community contacts of the travellers who have tested positive (during home quarantine period) will also be subjected to quarantine for 14 days and tested as per the protocol.
Children under five years of age are exempted from pre- and post-arrival testing. However, if found symptomatic for Covid-19 on arrival or during home quarantine, they shall undergo testing and treated as per the protocol.
The guidelines also provide for random testing — five per cent of the total flight passengers will be randomly picked to undergo post-arrival testing at the airport.
In a release issued earlier following a meeting chaired by Home Secretary Ajay Bhalla, the government had said that it will review “the decision on effective date of resumption of scheduled commercial international passengers service as per evolving global scenario while keeping a closer watch on emerging pandemic situation within the whole country.”
The Omicron variant was first reported on 24 November in South Africa. It has since spread to more than a dozen countries, many of which have imposed travel restrictions to try to seal themselves off.
Japan and Israel have decided to close their borders to foreigners.
The WHO agency urged its 194 member states to accelerate the vaccination of high-priority groups and ensure plans were in place to maintain health services.
It also urged the countries to launch negotiations on an international agreement on preventing future pandemics.
“Omicron demonstrates just why the world needs a new accord on pandemics: our current system disincentivises countries from alerting others to threats that will inevitably land on their shores,” Director-General of WHO, Tedros Adhanom, said.
The accord is reportedly set to be discussed in the World Health Assembly, and is expected to be finalised by May 2024. It would cover issues such as sharing of data and genome sequences of emerging viruses, and of any potential vaccines derived from research.
The Union government in India also urged the states to ramp up the health infrastructure to tackle any surge due to Omicron. The Ministry of Health has written to the state governments saying “ample testing infrastructure needs to be operationalised to tackle any surge due to Omicron”.
It said that in the absence of sufficient testing, it is extremely difficult to determine the infection spread. “States must strengthen their testing infrastructure,” Health Secretary Rajesh Bhushan on Sunday informed, noting that the overall testing and the proportion of RT-PCR tests have declined in some states.
The health ministry also advised the states that, given the high threat, intensive containment, active surveillance, increased coverage of vaccination and Covid-19 appropriate behaviour be enforced in the field in a very proactive manner.
It also asked the states to keep a close check on the emerging trend of cases and the positivity in an area and quickly delineate hotspots for effective containment.
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