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Repatriation flights begin on Thursday Image Credit: Supplied

Dubai: Less than 2000 Indians wishing to return home from the UAE will be flown to six Indian states in the first week of India’s biggest ever repatriation exercise named Vande Bharat Mission—sans social distancing and COVID-19 tests.

Short-listed applicants, who were contacted by the Indian missions on Tuesday to purchase tickets for the first two flights to Kerala on Thursday, told Gulf News that the tickets are priced around Dh725 to Dh750.

Sharjah resident Rasheed Thayyil said his 70-year-old mother Nepheeza Thottungal, who came on a visit to the UAE in February, received an email from the Indian Consulate in Dubai which quoted an airfare of around Rs15,000 (Dh725).

Another applicant from Abu Dhabi Ambily Babu said she purchased a ticket at Dh750 from Air India Express for her Abu Dhabi-Kochi flight scheduled to fly on Thursday evening.

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Airport staff seen in protective masks in front of an Air India plane in Kochi Image Credit: ANI

UAE flight details

Air India will operate 64 flights from May 7 to May 13 to bring back around 15,000 Indian nationals stranded abroad amid the COVID-19-induced lockdown, India’s Civil Aviation Minister Hardeep Singh Puri said on Tuesday.

The minister, while addressing a virtual press conference, said private Indian airlines may join the repatriation effort after May 13.

Ten repatriations flights are operating to Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh, Telangana, Delhi and Punjab in the first week of the phased repatriation as per a flight plan released by the Press Information Bureau of India.

Though each flight is listed to carry 200 passengers in the plan, UAE-based sources told Gulf News that flights from here would leave at least nine seats for isolation if any passenger develops any symptoms or discomfort during the journey.

As reported by Gulf News, the first two flights on Thursday would be to the state of Kerala, which received the highest number of applications among over 200,000 registrations received by the Indian missions here.

Air India will operate an Abu Dhabi-Kochi flight and a Dubai-Kozhikode flight on May 7.

There will be two flights to Chennai from Dubai on day two (May 8).

The only repatriation flight from any international destination to Uttar Pradesh in the first week will be from Sharjah to Lucknow on May 9.

On May 10, there will be a flight to Hyderabad from Abu Dhabi.

A third flight to Kerala from the UAE in the first week will be operated from Dubai to Kochi on May 11.

May 12 will see two flights to Delhi from Dubai.

Again, the only repatriation flight from any international destination to Punjab in the first week will be from Dubai to Amritsar on May 13.

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Kochi Airport in Kerala tightens COVID-19 screening Image Credit: PTI

No social distancing

Air India Express (AIE) which is set to operate the first two flights to Kerala on Thursday will operate its Boeing 737-800 flights, with a seating capacity of 186 economy class seats.

With nine seats reserved for isolation, only 177 passengers would be flown, sources said.

While most of the UAE flights in the first week will be operated by the AIE, Air India will operate two of its Dreamliner aircraft with a seating capacity of 256 seats. These flights would also reserve some seats for isolation.

However, the plan has made it clear that the Indian government will not be following the rules of social distancing to prevent the spread of coronavirus in the repatriation flights.

Several people, including the Chief Minister of Kerala Pinarayi Vijayan, expressed concern over flying passengers, who will not be tested for COVID-19, without observing social distancing.

Vijayan also wrote a letter to the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi saying it was dangerous to bring back Indians from abroad without tests.

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Left: medics collect swab samples from a passenger in Kozhiko Image Credit: PTI

Health guidance

The central government had announced that it would only do a medical screening of the passengers before the flight and only asymptomatic persons would be allowed to travel.

Each passenger will have to fill a self-reporting form to be presented at the health and immigration counter at their destination.

The passengers are required to state whether they are suffering from fever, cough, diabetes or any respiratory disease. This form is similar to the one filled by passengers landing in India during the early days of the COVID-19 outbreak.

As per the announcement by the government, returnees would undergo COVID-19 once they complete 14-day quarantine in a hospital or government –arranged institution on a payment basis.

However, the form seen by Gulf News asks the applicants to keep themselves isolated at home for 28 days unless they develop any symptoms such as fever and cough.

During the journey, they will have to follow the protocols such as those issued by the Health Ministry and the Civil Aviation Ministry. Applicants from the UAE are yet to receive instructions on these.

On reaching the destination, passengers will have to register on the Arogya Setu app, India’s mobile application for COVID-19 surveillance.

Biggest evacuation includes ships

External Affairs Minister Dr. S. Jaishankar named the COVID-19 repatriation mission “Vande Bharat Mission.” “Commenced preparations for Vande Bharat Mission. Planning underway for stranded Indian nationals to return home starting 7th May. Urge them to keep in regular touch with their Embassies,” he tweeted on Tuesday evening with photos of his virtual conference with heads of Indian missions.

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INS Shardul has been diverted to Dubai to evacuate expatriates Image Credit: PTI

This airlift by India’s Ministry of External Affairs would be the largest since the Gulf War evacuation of over 170,000 people from Kuwait in 1990. Similar evacuations were also seen in April 2015, when Operation Raahat was launched to evacuate Indians from war-torn Yemen.

India has also sent three naval ships to evacuate its citizens stranded in the Maldives and the UAE due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a defence spokesperson was quoted as saying by Indian media.

INS Shardul was diverted to Dubai to evacuate the expatriates while INS Jalashwa deployed off Mumbai coast, along with INS Magar, diverted for Maldives on Monday night, he was quoted as saying.

The three ships will return to Kochi, the unnamed official added.

However, there was no confirmation on these reports from the Indian missions in the UAE till late on Tuesday.