Coronavirus: India bans all travellers from entering country in unprecedented move

In one of most extreme measures taken by any government in response to Covid-19 outbreak, India suspends all visas, effective from Friday, with only some exemptions for diplomats and workers

Adam Withnall
Delhi
Thursday 12 March 2020 09:24 GMT
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The Indian government has moved to drastically limit the number of people it allows to enter the country, suspending visas for visitors from all other countries for at least a month in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

The measure, one of the most far-reaching responses yet to the Covid-19 outbreak by any government, effectively bans all tourism to India until at least 15 April. It will be enforced from Friday onwards.

The announcement came as the number of coronavirus cases in India rose to 72 on Thursday, and amid mounting concerns that the country’s beleaguered health system and densely populated cities would make it extremely difficult to contain a fully fledged outbreak.

Announcing the move, the health ministry said that “all Indian nationals are strongly advised to avoid all non-essential travel abroad”, warning they could be subject to a 14-day quarantine upon their return. “Indian nationals presently abroad are advised to avoid non-essential travel,” the notice added.

In the southern state of Karnataka, officials invoked 123-year-old legislation to announce that any person who refuses hospital treatment or violates their quarantine will be prosecuted.

The warning over the provision under the 1897 Epidemic Diseases Act, which was brought in by the occupying British administration to tackle the plague, came after a passenger who presented with a fever after arriving in the state from Dubai ran away from a government hospital.

The health ministry said the travel ban has some exceptions: those with diplomatic and long-term employment visas for India will still be allowed into the country, and foreigners already inside the country will mostly be unaffected.

However, tourists who have already had visas issued for upcoming travel to India should consider them suspended, and foreigners of Indian origin – who would normally enjoy visa-free travel under the Overseas Citizenship of India (OCI) scheme – will also be barred entry.

Even those with certain categories of long-term, multiple-entry visa will be barred from entering the country, or have their visas suspended if they leave from Friday onwards. A foreign ministry source confirmed this would include foreign journalists based in India.

Travellers with a “compelling reason” to come to India should contact their nearest Indian mission, the advisory said.

Emma Horne, director of the Delhi-based tourism agency Emma Horne Travel, told The Independent that the outbreak was among the hardest challenges she has faced in 14 years as a travel agent in India.

The ban, she said, was "of course very disappointing for [our customers] and all concerned in the travel business, but does seem to be a sensible measure in the light of recent events".

"To be perfectly honest, in one way it makes life a lot simpler," she said. "It was all getting quite complicated with the different advisories about France, Germany and so on. Having a blanket travel ban for everybody stops the guessing game of whether people want to come – at least it provides some certainty."

Tourist and business travel had already dipped sharply this year, but the visa ban will take activity to an "all-time low", according to Chetan Gupta, general secretary of the Association of Domestic Tour Operators of India.

As one of the world's most popular travel destinations, millions of people in the country rely on tourism for employment. About 10 million foreign tourists visit the country each year, according to government data.

"All our members are suffering at the moment," Mr Gupta told Reuters. "No one has any business at all – inbound, outbound or domestic."

India's prime minister, Narendra Modi, wrote on Twitter that the government was taking "wide-ranging" and "proactive [steps]... to ensure safety of all". In addition to the travel ban, he said that state and federal government ministries were "augmenting healthcare capacities", but did not provide details.

Mr Modi also announced that none of his ministers would travel abroad in "the upcoming days". "Say No to Panic, Say Yes to Precautions," he wrote. "I urge our countrymen to also avoid non-essential travel. We can break the chain of spread and ensure safety of all by avoiding large gatherings."

Meanwhile on Thursday, the country's sports secretary said that cricket – a national obsession in India – may fall victim to anti-coronavirus measures, with plans being put in place for the national team's upcoming matches to be played in empty stadiums.

The chief ministers of two states where India is due to play matches against South Africa this month "have been advised to avoid gatherings of people," RS Jhulaniya said. "Matches may go on without spectator crowd."

Brijesh Patel, governing council chairman of the Indian Premier League, which was due to start its season later this month, said the organisation would meet on Saturday to discuss "all possibilities" regarding the tournament, including visa issues for overseas players and the possibility of playing matches in empty stadiums.

On Thursday afternoon, the chief minister of Delhi announced that all cinemas and public schools would remain shut in the capital until at least 31 March, with the only exceptions being made for the hosting of key exams. Delhi has had six confirmed coronavirus cases in total, alongside 14 cases among a tour group of Italians who are being held at a hotel across the state border in neighbouring Haryana.

Speaking to diplomats in Geneva, the director general of the World Health Organisation, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus – who on Wednesday declared the Covid-19 outbreak a pandemic – clarified that it was still a "controllable pandemic".

"We are deeply concerned that some countries are not approaching this threat with the level of political commitment needed to control it," he said.

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