India on Monday suspended flight services from the United Kingdom from December 22 to December 31 after Britain’s health minister said a new coronavirus mutation spreading faster than other variants was “out of control”.

The Ministry of Civil Aviation said that passengers arriving from the UK in all transit flights – ones that have taken off or those reaching India before 11.59 pm on December 22 – should be subject to a mandatory real-time reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction, or an RT-PCR test, on arrival at the airports.

“Considering the prevailing situation in the UK, Indian government has decided that all flights originating from the UK to India shall be temporarily suspended till 11.59 pm, 31st December,” the ministry said in a statement. “This suspension to start w.e.f. 11.59 pm, 22nd December.”

The ministry announced the decisions hours after Union Health Minister Harsh Vardhan said that the Indian government was alert and there was no need to panic over the fast-spreading new variant. Vardhan had even dismissed demands for a flight ban. “These [are] imaginary situations, imaginary talks and imaginary panic,” he said.

The UK is one of 23 countries with which India has an “air bubble”. There had been calls to ban flights from the UK since Sunday. “New mutation of corona virus has emerged in UK, which is a super-spreader,” Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal tweeted on Monday morning. “I urge central government to ban all flights from UK immediately.”

The UK has so far registered more than 20.46 lakh coronavirus cases and 67,503 deaths, according to the Johns Hopkins University. India, with more than 1 crore cases and 1,45,810 deaths, is the world’s second-worst-affected country.

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The new strain

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson had said the new strain “may be up to 70% more transmissible than the old variant” although there was no evidence it was more deadly or led to a more severe illness. UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock warned that the new strain of the virus was “out of control” and said the situation was “deadly serious”. “It’s going to be very difficult to keep it under control until we have the vaccine rolled out,” Hancock had told Sky News.

The new variant in the UK was first seen in mid-September in London and Kent. By December, it had become the “dominant variant” in London. The new variant contains 23 different changes, many associated with how it binds to cells and enters them, reported Reuters.

Nearly a third of England’s population has entered a lockdown, four days before Christmas, as authorities try to rein in the pandemic. The new variant of the virus has spread rapidly in London and South East England.

Johnson had on Saturday asked the people to cancel their Christmas plans and stay home as the new strain was spreading more quickly. He announced a new Tier-4 level of restrictions cancelling plans for relaxed Christmas norms. London, which till now was in Tier 3 with the strict restrictions, was moved up to Tier 4, the highest level of curbs.

The mutation of the virus has worried experts across the world as drug manufacturers are still in the preliminary stages of the vaccine against Covid-19. On Sunday, Germany’s Health Minister Jens Spahn said that experts in the European Union believed the current vaccines being developed against Covid-19 will be effective against the new strain, reported AFP.

Actions by other countries

The UK has been almost cut off from the rest of Europe since Monday with several countries shutting their borders. France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Austria, Switzerland, Ireland, Belgium, Israel and Canada were among those that suspended travel to and from UK.

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia on Sunday temporarily stopped all international flights and halted entry through its land and sea ports for at least seven days over the new variant. Hong Kong is due to ban all flights arriving from the United Kingdom from midnight.

Other Asian countries, including Japan and South Korea, said they were closely monitoring the situation.

UK Prime Minister Johnson will chair an emergency response meeting on Monday to discuss international travel. UK Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said the steps taken by many European countries were surprising. “We’re doing everything we can to get that restarted,” he told Sky News.