The Centre on Wednesday extended the suspension of international flights till January 31, 2021, in view of the coronavirus crisis, reported ANI. Earlier in the day, Union Civil Aviation Minister Hardeep Singh Puri announced that the temporary suspension of flights between India and the United Kingdom has been extended till January 7, 2021. The decision came as a part of the Centre’s move to check the spread of a mutant strain of coronavirus first discovered in the UK and is 70% more transmissible.

“Decision has been taken to extend the temporary suspension of flights to & from the UK till 7 January 2021,” tweeted the civil aviation minister. “Thereafter strictly regulated resumption will take place for which details will be announced shortly.”

In its order extending the suspension of all flights, the Directorate General of Civil Aviation said that restrictions will not be applicable for special flights and international air cargo operations.

India instituted a lockdown in the end of March, which also included grounding both domestic and international flights. However, since June, the government allowed limited operations of Air India flights under the “Vande Bharat” mission for certain categories of Overseas Citizenship of India, Persons of Indian Origin card-holders and other Indians who were stuck abroad due to the pandemic.

The Centre had allowed domestic flight services to resume on May 25, but at only one-third of its capacity. The cap was later increased to 45% and then to 60%.

India has so far reported 1,02,44,852 coronavirus cases. The country’s toll stood at 1,48,439. There are 2,62,272 active cases, while 98,34,141 people have recovered from the disease so far.

The new variant

Twenty cases of the new strain have so far been reported in India, according to the Union Health Ministry. The first six cases were reported on Tuesday.

Puri had on Tuesday hinted that the government was planning to extend the flight ban. The minister had said the extension would not be long or indefinite.

So far, the new variant of the infection has been reported in Denmark, Netherlands, Australia, Italy, Sweden, France, Spain, Switzerland, Germany, Canada, Japan, Lebanon and Singapore.

The new UK virus variant, which scientists have named “VUI – 202012/01”, includes a genetic mutation in the “spike” protein, which could result in coronavirus spreading more easily between people. It was first announced by Matt Hancock, the UK health secretary, on December 14, and was subsequently confirmed by Public Health England and the UK’s Covid-19 sequencing consortium. Screening back through databases of SARS-CoV-2, the virus which causes Covid-19, the first sample was taken in the county of Kent on September 20.

The variant carries 14 defining mutations including seven in the spike protein, which mediates entry of the virus into human cells. This is a relatively large number of changes compared to the many variants in circulation globally. UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has claimed that this was as much as 70% more transmissible than previous versions. But there is currently no evidence that the variant is more likely to cause severe coronavirus infections or that it would render vaccines less effective.