First batch of expats to arrive today; Kerala readies quarantine, screening facilities

The Cochin International Airport. File phot

Thiruvananthapuram: As the biggest evacuation exercise to repatriate Indians stranded overseas due to COVID-19 lockdown begins, the Kerala government has put in place all arrangements to receive the expatriates who will arrive at four airports in the state beginning Thursday.

The international airports at Kannur, Kozhikode, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram will handle the arrivals, a large number of them from the Gulf region, with the first two Air India Express (AIE) flights from Abu Dhabi and Dubai set to land on Thursday the night, carrying around 340 passengers totally.

Around 2,000 people are expected to reach the state in the first five days onboard 13 flights, official sources said adding arrangements, including accommodation for quarantine and thermal screening at airports, have been made.

In addition to the air evacuation, three naval ships, left for Maldives and UAE on Tuesday to bring back the Indian citizens.

All arrangements are in place. We have got the operating procedure from the Civil Aviation Ministry and the Defence Ministry who are coordinating the flights and the naval ships. Two planes from Abu Dhabi and Dubai are expected to arrive tomorrow at Kochi and Kozhikode airports respectively," Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan said.

More than four lakh expatriates from Kerala have registered for returning to the state, but as per the Centre's list, only 80,000 are in the priority list for being brought back to the state.

The government is keen that there is no big spike in the COVID-19 cases with the return of the expatriates to the state, which has so far made good progress in containing the spread of the disease and effective treatment of patients.

Vijayan had earlier urged the Centre to ensure that the expatriates undergo COVID-19 test before emplaning for their respective states, saying otherwise it might lead to spreading of the infection.

India has been under lockdown since March 25 to curb the spread of COVID-19. All scheduled commercial passenger flights have been suspended for this period. Consequently, thousands of Indian citizens are stranded abroad.

On Monday, the Indian government announced plans to begin a phased repatriation of its citizens stranded abroad from May 7.

Under a project named the Vande Bharat mission, the Centre has made arrangements to operate 64 flights from May 7 to May 13 from the Gulf countries, Singapore, US, and UK among others to bring back stranded Indian nationals.

Low cost airline AIE sources said eight flights have been readied for the evacuation operations and a crew list of 60 pilots and 120 cabin crew drawn up for the first phase of the operation lasting 47 days. Doctors and nurses of a government hospital in Kochi imparted training to 12 airline staff, including four pilots,on the steps to be taken while donning and doffing of personal protective equipment (PPE) suits, infection control practices to be followed in flight and also the management of anticipated health emergencies during the flight.

Two masks, 100ml sanitiser, a snack box and half litre of water will be ready in the seats of the passengers before take off, the sources told PTI.

AIE has tied up with Central Warehousing Corporation to disinfect the aircraft before and after each trip. The corporation has the core competency in these kind of operations and special passes to enter the airport were being given to their staff, the sources said.

The Abu Dhabi-Kochi and Dubai-Kozhikode flights would be operated with 170 odd passengers on Thursday and are expected to arrive at their destinations at around 9:40pm. Though there is a seating capacity for 189 passengers in the AIE flight, only 170 passengers would be allowed to maintain the social distancing norms, the sources said.

On Wednesday, Vijayan said those travelling must take all safety precautions and be very cautious right from leaving their residence to the airport till arrival.

DIG-level police officers have been assigned to look after the security at the four airports and the Kochi Port where the expatriates would be arriving, he told reporters.

When asked about the confusion with regard to quarantine period stipulated by the state and the Centre, Vijayan said it was the state's responsibility and reiterated that the passengers would have to undergo institutional quarantine for seven days after reaching the state.

On the seventh day, they would have to undergo COVID-19 test. Those found negative can go home and complete another seven days quarantine.

The Centre has stated that passengers would have to follow 14 days institutional quarantine on returning.

However, Pregnant women and small children can undergo the quarantine at their homes,Vijayan said.

Over 9,000 pregnant women had registered with the Non- Resident Keralites Affairs (NORKA) department website for returning to the state.

Air India has rescheduled its Riyadh-Kozhikode flight to Friday. On May 12, a flight from Dubai will take off for Kannur.

Besides the four destinations in Kerala, AIE would be operating services to airports in Chennai, Delhi, Bengaluru, lucknow and Tiruchirapalli.

Two flights are expected to land at Thiruvananthapuram on May 9 and May 10 from Doha in Qatar with 200 passengers each, Thiruvananthapuram Airport Director C V Raveedranath said. For those arriving there, quarantine facilities have been arranged in six taluks to accommodate over 11,200 people and government will bear the expenses.

Hotel rooms have been arranged for another 6,400 people for which they will have to pay, a government release said.

In Ernakulam district, a total of 4,000 houses with water, electricity and bath attached facilities have been arranged.

Among the 4.27 lakh NRKs registered in the NORKA portal, about 1.69 lakh people constitute the most vulnerable sections -- those who have lost their jobs, those released from prisons and awaiting deportation, pregnant women,students who have completed courses and whose visa had expired, officials said. More than 9,900 pregnant women and 61,000 people who have lost their jobs are among those registered.

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