On Monday evening, the Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare put out a carefully worded circular with new travel restrictions to contain the novel coronavirus. One clause, in particular, set off ripples of panic: “Travel of passengers from member countries of the European Union, the European Free Trade Association, Turkey and United Kingdom to India is prohibited with effect from 18th March 2020”. Airlines were forbidden to board passengers bound for India from these countries. The ban will be reviewed on March 31.

Indians stranded abroad were initially confused – the government had not specified whether the ban extended to its own citizens. Indian embassies in different countries gave conflicting answers.

In London, the embassy initially said Indian passport holders would be allowed into the country. “My sister called the Indian Embassy [as] she has plans to travel back to Ahmedabad on March 20,” said Yash Bordia. “The Indian Embassy said the travel ban is only for foreign nationals not for Indian passport holders.”

Yet, in Spain, an embassy official had this to say in reply to anxious queries: “We would advise all Indian nationals to leave for India by first available flights by tomorrow if they are planning to go to India. Future situation is uncertain so those who are planning, this is the right time to leave.”

Later at night, ANI quoted government sources to say the ban included Indian citizens living in the countries mentioned.

Screenshot of a reply from officials at the Indian Embassy in Madrid to queries about the travel ban.

Scramble for tickets

In the United Kingdom, home to hundreds of Indian students, it set off a last-minute scramble for tickets. Many had waited, hoping the advisory exempted Indian citizens. “The language was ambiguous and everyone started booking flights late,” said Dhananjay Kumar, a Chevening scholar at King’s College London. “I booked a flight at 1.15 pm and the cost was Rs 29,000 and by 1.45 pm the cost was Rs 100,000. Many of my friends were not able to book tickets and now they have to be here.”

Booking last-minute tickets has been expensive for many students. Tejas Harad, a fellow at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, had also rescheduled his Air India ticket to March 19, paying 150 pounds or Rs 13,584. With the ban in place, he had to buy a new ticket on British Airways for 423 pounds, or Rs 38,262, and is doubtful about getting a refund on his Air India ticket.

Others worried about being marooned with expired visas. Vinita Govindarajan, a student at the University of Oxford, had sensed trouble ahead and already advanced her tickets to Chennai from March 26 to March 19. But even the new ticket would not get her home in time.

“Economy tickets have sky-rocketed or have been sold out on some airlines,” she said. “My visa ends on March 31 and now I might have to overstay my visa.” Calls to the Indian Embassy had gone unanswered, she said.

Later in the evening, she managed tickets to Mumbai. Travel from Mumbai to her home in Chennai would have to be worked out later.

In Germany, Vivek JM waited anxiously for his flight out of Frankfurt. His one-year visa for research work in Dusseldorf expired soon and it was imperative to leave the country. Even though he was booked on a flight that left on the evening of March 17, he was taking no chances. “Even though I have an evening flight, I will be leaving early morning so that the local transport problems don’t affect me,” he said.

A potential patient being screened in New Delhi. Credit: PTI

Quarantine chaos

The government advisory proscribing travellers from the European Union, the United Kingdom and Turkey comes in the wake of numerous complaints about poor hygiene in some quarantine facilities and the waiting time for screening at international airports.

At the Bengaluru airport, 60 passengers flying in from Paris were packed off to a hospital where they had to wait in a single room for about 12 hours, with dirty toilets and no hand sanitisers or face masks in evidence. The conditions were ripe for spreading infection rather than containing it, they alleged. Other passengers from Frankfurt complained long queues for screening at the Bengaluru airport put them at greater risk of infection.

On March 16, the Delhi government announced hotels near the airport would offer quarantine facilities for those willing to pay. The government would ensure they received medical attention.