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India has suspended flights to and from the UK till 31 December to prevent the spread of a new strain of the coronavirus that is considered to be 70% more infectious.

No flights from the UK will land in India, and vice versa, after 22 December. However, international all-cargo flights and special flights allowed by the Indian aviation regulator will continue to operate.

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India currently has air bubble arrangements with as many as 23 countries, including the US and UK.

India joined dozens of other countries, including Germany, France, Italy and Ireland, to ban travel from the UK, amid concern that unrestricted movement will trigger a renewed surge in covid cases.

The European Centre for Disease Control, in its threat assessment report on Sunday, said the new variant of the virus was known to be up to 70% more contagious. The decision by the government came after meetings of a joint monitoring group chaired by the director-general for health services, Dr. Sunil Kumar. Health secretary Rajesh Bhushan had also written to civil aviation secretary Pradeep Singh Kharola, seeking suspension of flights to and from the UK during 22-31 December. A copy of the letter has been reviewed by Mint.

Airline stocks plunged following the announcement.

Shares of InterGlobe Aviation Ltd, which operates the country’s largest airline IndiGo, fell 8.71% while those of SpiceJet Ltd fell 9.99% on BSE on Monday. Neither IndiGo nor SpiceJet currently operates flights to the UK.

Vistara and Air India are the only Indian airlines to operate flights to the UK, while British airlines Virgin Atlantic and British Airways operate flights to India and back.

“Vistara will comply with the government’s decision to suspend all flights originating from (the) UK to India. In order to minimize inconvenience to our customers, we will enable one-time free-of-charge rescheduling of affected bookings to any date until 31 December 2021," a Vistara spokesperson said.

An Air India spokesperson said that the national carrier, which operates flights from eight Indian cities to London, will follow the government directive.

Meanwhile, travel agents said that the UK flight ban is expected to have negligible impact on international traffic.

“The impact of the current flight cancellation to (the) UK will have a negligible impact on traffic. Due to the current environment, tourism to the UK, in any case, had not picked up," said Nishant Pitti, chief executive and co-founder of EaseMyTrip.com.

According to data from EaseMyTrip, Vistara currently operates five weekly flights from Delhi to London. National carrier Air India operates several weekly flights to London from Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Kochi, Amritsar, Bangalore and Ahmedabad.

British Airways has six weekly flights each between Delhi-London and Bangalore-London, five weekly flights between Mumbai-London and four weekly flights between Chennai and London. Virgin Atlantic operates four weekly flights each from Mumbai and New Delhi to London.

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