Many Indian students who planned to travel back home to be with their friends and family in India over the Christmas and New Year period are among those caught up in Monday’s suspension of all flights to and from the UK as the world reacts to a new rapid-spreading strain of coronavirus detected in parts of England.
While many students would have made travel plans earlier in December after UK universities set up tests to leave the campus processes in place, there are some who are booked on flights in what is one of the busiest travel periods within the UK-India sector.
While tourist visas largely remain suspended, those in the UK for family reasons are also among those caught out by the cancellation.
“Significant concern is being observed from Indian students both inbound and outbound,” said Sanam Arora, Chair of the National Indian Students and Alumni Union UK (NISAU-UK), a representative group for Indian students in the UK.
“Many students had planned to travel either back to India to be with their families over the holiday period or from India to the UK in order to start settling into the country ahead of the commencement of the January session. As we speak, there are many questions being raised around being stuck and confusion for instance around whether the PCR test detects the new strain of the virus,” she said.
The Indian High Commission in London issued several messages on its social media platforms with updates from the Ministry of Civil Aviation in India.
“This suspension to start w.e.f. 23.59 hours, 22nd December 2020. Consequently flights from India to UK shall stand temporarily suspended during above said period,” it said, in a statement in response to a barrage of queries by travellers if inbound flights from India to the UK may be allowed to land.
Air India, which has been operating flights under the Vande Bharat mission to ferry passengers during the coronavirus pandemic lockdown this year, also confirmed immediate cancellations.
“In view of the Ministry of Civil Aviation directive of suspension of all flights to/from UK from 2359 hrs of 22nd December to 2359 hrs of 31st December, 2020, no Air India flight will operate to the UK during this period,” it said.
Diaspora groups in the UK urged for calm and advised non-resident Indians (NRIs) and people of Indian origin (PIOs) to follow the new lockdown rules, which mean a majority of the UK is under the strictest lockdown with all non-essential businesses now closed.
“Due to a new mutant, coronavirus is moving fast and wide in the UK. I would like to request the Indian community not to take it lightly,” said Kuldeep Shekhawat, President of the Overseas Friends of BJP (OFBJP) diaspora group.
“Please don’t panic. These are very difficult times and all possible precautions should be taken and all British government guidelines should be adhered to. The flight ban is in place just for your safety. Both the government are monitoring the situation very closely and fresh guidelines will be issued as the situation moves on,” he said.
The UK Home Office has previously offered coronavirus-related grace periods for any visa expirations caught up as a result of the lockdown travel disruption.
“Throughout pandemic, we have introduced measures to help those who have been impacted by global travel and health restrictions, such as the relaxation of the rules on switching visas in country, enabling those who wish to stay in the UK to submit an application from within the UK,” a Home Office spokesperson said.
“In August, we put an exceptional assurance process in place to protect the status of those who have leave expiring before January 31 and are unable to leave the UK,” the spokesperson said.