• Stakeholders query travel ban from India, Brazil, Turkey over COVID-19 spike
• Airlines face $3,500 fine per defaulting passenger
• Decision hasty, not based on data, says Tomori
• Experts rally govt to rapid testings at Lagos, Abuja airports
Chaotic scenes are expected at the check-in counters of Nigeria-bound airlines as a new set of stiffer protocols takes effect today. The new guidelines, among others, ban air travellers from India, Brazil and Turkey, with a fine of $3,500 per defaulting passenger.
The Presidential Steering Committee on COVID-19 at the weekend rolled out a fresh guideline for inbound passengers, reducing the validity period of pre-boarding COVID-19 PCR test from 96 to 72 hours.
Besides, non-Nigerian passport holders and non-residents who visited Brazil, India or Turkey within 14 days preceding travel to Nigeria will be denied entry into the country. This regulation, however, does not apply to passengers who transited through these countries.
For arriving passenger who fails to comply, the airline shall mandatorily pay a penalty of $3,500 for each defaulting passenger, while non-Nigerians will be denied entry and returned to the country of embarkation at cost to the airline.
Nigerians and those with permanent resident permit, who visited Brazil, India or Turkey within 14 days preceding travel to Nigeria shall, among others, be made to undergo seven days of mandatory quarantine in a government-approved facility at the point-of-entry and at cost to the passenger.
Officials of foreign airlines, yesterday, hinted that the implementation of the fresh guideline was too hasty and readily puts airlines in a difficult position.
Country representative of one of the affected airlines said: “I think the implementation was rather too quick. We got the new travel advisory late Saturday and it readily comes into effect on Monday. It means airlines will have to start going through all intending passengers’ details one after the other to avoid violation of the air bubble. It is a tedious and difficult situation for us all, not only in Nigeria. I will not be surprised if some of our flights don’t make it here,” he said.
Other stakeholders said the guidelines were in order, but the Federal Government should do more to provide on-arrival rapid tests at Lagos and Abuja international entry ports.
Indeed, many countries and destinations have lately announced restrictions after the caseload of COVID-19 patients spiked in India. Among them are Hong Kong, United Kingdom, Dubai, Canada, Pakistan, New Zealand, Iran, Australia, Netherlands, Thailand, and Italy.
Indian hospitals, morgues and crematoriums have been overwhelmed as the country has reported more than 300,000 daily cases for more than 10 days straight. Many families have been left on their own to find medicines and oxygen.
At the weekend, India pushed the world record for daily new cases higher, reporting 401,993 new cases on Saturday and then 392,488 yesterday. It is averaging over 3,000 Covid deaths each day, with more than 200,000 dead in total, with evidence suggesting the official numbers vastly understate the toll.
In Brazil, new coronavirus cases have fallen off a late-March peak, but remain high by historical standards. Total deaths in the country are second only to the United States.
Turkey imposed a nationwide “full lockdown” on Thursday, lasting until May 17, to curb a surge in coronavirus infections and deaths, with the world’s fourth highest number of cases and the worst on a per-capita basis among major nations.
A statement signed by Secretary to the Government of the Federation/Chairman, Presidential Steering Committee on COVID-19, Boss Mustapha, said Nigeria had been monitoring with concern the increasing trend of COVID-19 cases in several countries over the last few weeks.
He said: “Of the countries assessed, this interim travel advisory applies to three countries in the first instance. These precautionary measures are a necessary step to minimise the risk of a surge in COVID-19 cases introduced to Nigeria from other countries, while national response activities continue.
“Nigerians are strongly advised to avoid any non-essential international travels to any country at this period and specifically to countries that are showing a rising number of cases and deaths.
“For Nigerians arriving from or with contacts with India, Brazil or Turkey, they shall within 24 hours of arrival take a COVID-19 PCR test. If positive, the passenger shall be admitted within a government-approved treatment centre, in line with national treatment protocols; and if negative, the passenger shall continue to remain in quarantine and made to undergo a repeat PCR test on day seven of their quarantine.
“False declaration: Passenger(s) who provided false or misleading contact information will be liable to prosecution. Person(s) who willfully disregard or refuse to comply with directions of Port Health staff, security agencies or evade quarantine shall be prosecuted in accordance with the law.
“State governments are required to ensure that all returning travellers from all countries are monitored to ensure adherence to the mandatory seven-day self-isolation period and the repeat COVID-19 PCR test on the seventh day after arrival. We urge members of the public to adhere to all COVID-19 preventive measures in place including adherence to the national travel protocol, proper use of face masks, regular hand washing and physical distancing,” the advisory read in part.
Travel consultant, Sunday Olumegbon, yesterday, said while Nigeria is trying to keep safe, both the travellers and airlines would suffer more disruptions. “I have a number of clients that have made their travel plans for either business or medical trips abroad. Most of them are jittery now because of the new protocols and the less likelihood of being taken by airlines without additional cost, that is, if they find airlines that will airlift them.
“I really cannot blame the Nigerian government. They have a duty to keep the country safe. I think they can do better. A country like Ethiopia some days ago set up a high-end COVID-19 testing laboratory at its main hub in Addis Ababa, providing quick and accurate test results on arrival. In three hours, your result is ready. Why not in Lagos and Abuja airports, instead of having to quarantine travellers?” Olumegbon queried.
Aviation security consultant, Group Captain John Ojikutu (rtd), said Nigeria had been on this path at the onset of the pandemic. “Often, we take a knee-jerk or copycat approach without making an effort to take initiatives that are original to us. Why not behave the way the South Koreans and Chinese had done? Be original.
“My suggestions, modified from what I said earlier in March last year; redistribute all the foreign airlines to the four or five international airports and none of them must go to more than one in the four or five, except those from the same country like the British Airways and Virgin Atlantic.
“We have about 30 foreign airlines coming to Nigeria, it therefore means each of the international airports would be having six foreign airlines flights. The aim is to be able to effectively and efficiently test, trace and track any infected passenger. Each airport must have testing centres and adequate skilled manpower in sufficient numbers to do the testing 24 hours at the airports for arriving travellers,” he said.
IN his reaction, Prof. Oyewale Tomori, a virologist and chairman, Expert Ministerial Review Committee on COVID-19, said: “While the focus is on passengers who have been in India 14 days prior to entering Nigeria, I think we should also include passengers who transit through India. It does not take forever to get exposed to an infected person.
“Also, a targeted rather than blanket ban should be pursued for the following reasons. We have no direct flight to and from India. So, they can come in transiting through Addis, Nairobi, Johannesburg, Kigali, Lome, Accra, or Europe. What of an India-origin passenger who comes into Lagos via Seme border, how do we monitor such? We should focus on passenger and not the flight.
“This requires upping the performance of our staff at the points of entry, serious attention to details of arriving passengers and forms completed and diligent monitoring such as immediate sample collection on arrival, daily temperature and symptoms checks. Blanket checks are by nature discriminatory. When we discovered UK’s B.1.1.7 variant and it was spreading in the UK, did we ban UK flights? When our B.1.525 variant invaded UK, did they ban flights from Nigeria? What UK did was to strengthen internal mechanisms targeted and focused on the passenger and not flight bans.
“The countries that have banned Indian flights have based this decision on data. How many flights from India come into the country, how many passengers are Indians, which part of India are they coming from? We have no clue or answers to the questions and we cannot wake up without evidence and just throw in a blanket ban.
“Again, the devil is in the implementation of our guidelines. With our disregard for honesty and accountability, our Ports Of Entry (POE) will become Points Of Escape (POE) for the travellers after a few rupees have changed hands.”