As international flights resume on September 5, experts in aviation and health sectors have expressed concerns over new safety protocols for arriving international travellers.
They fear the relaxation of COVID-19 protocols to facilitate air travel may compromise efforts to contain the virus and increase the spread of the virus.
The concerns were expressed just as relevant government agencies send conflicting positions on the matter. While protocols approved by Presidential Task Force on COVID-19 asks arriving passengers to submit passports pending the outcome of test results, the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) has issued a statement to the contrary.
Read More: Nigeria postpones resumption of international flight
These conflicts come amidst reports that revenue loss along Nigerian air route has risen from N450 million in April to N550 million in August.
The announcement by the Federal Government that international flight operations into Murtala Muhammed International Airport (MMIA) and Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport (NAIA), Abuja, will resume skeletal operations on September 5 came after about five months of the COVID-19-induced lockdown.
The early phase of the reopening permits only a maximum of 1,280 arriving passengers or four flights per day at each of the airports. Already, more than 10 airlines have expressed readiness to resume international flight operations.
Contrary to the previous 14-day quarantine of all arriving passengers, the new protocols have left the issues of quarantine and testing at the discretion of passengers and allowed them unfettered access into the country even before their COVID-19 status is known.
Director-General of NCAA, Capt. Musa Nuhu, during a zoom meeting with stakeholders, said passports of intending passengers into Nigeria would no longer be collected for 14-day safe keeping by the Nigeria Immigration Service (NIS).
This is contrary to PTF’s revised quarantine protocols for persons arriving in Nigeria from abroad.
Among others, it mandates arriving passengers to deposit their passports with Nigeria Immigration Service for two weeks pending the verification of their COVID-19 status. Arriving passengers are expected to go into isolation for 14 days and remain in the city/state of the entry (Lagos or Abuja), during self-quarantine.
Members of the COVID-19 medical response team in Lagos are not pleased with the new routine, given that it allows room for abuse by the arriving passengers.
The group said: “It is going to be very difficult to expect non-Lagos or Abuja residents to self-isolate in the city pending the outcome of their results. We had many of the evacuated travellers that had gone to Osun, Imo, Ebonyi, and Kastina among others before they knew their status. Those are potential threats to us all. Ideally, instant testing at our airports would have been the best option, but no one is thinking about that now,” a coordinator told The Guardian.
Aviation security consultant, Group Captain John Ojikutu (rtd), said arrivals could be allowed to go if airports could test and track them.
Ojikutu stressed the need to have adequate skilled health workers in sufficient numbers at the two airports.
“ My arithmetic tells me if we have six testing tables in one airport with sufficient numbers of skilled health workers, we can test 72 passengers in an hour and the 1,280 passengers can just be all right for one international airport to test in 18 hours in three shifts of six hours,” Ojikutu said.
The estimated losses incurred during the lockdown cover operating airlines’ operations, operational charges to agencies and service providers, contributions to Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and other ancillary services in the aviation industry.
It also includes direct job losses; the figures this month climbed to 149,400 in Nigeria following the prolonged lockdown of the international airspace. It was an upsurge from 139,500 recorded as of April.
Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Finchglow Travels, Bernard Bankole, said estimated losses were not out of place given that the disruption had lasted six months, including the summer peak period.
Bankole had earlier argued that, since the industry raked in a total of N360 billion ($1 billion) in ticket sales last year, Year 2020 losses could not be less than N180 billion ($500 million).
As of April, Bankole said, unused ticket refunds and payments to airlines had already cost travel agencies over N100 billion.
Nigeria is not alone in the losing game. On the African continent, Nigeria is second to South Africa, which has lost about 300,000 jobs and $5.8 billion in aviation revenue.
IATA’s new details showed the impact of COVID-19 on Africa’s aviation industry and economies had worsened sharply since the previous assessment in April.
Job losses in aviation and related industries could increase by up to 3.5 million. This is more than half of the region’s 6.2 million aviation-related employment and 400,000 more than the previous estimate.
Full-year 2020 traffic is expected to plummet by 54 per cent, more than 80 million passenger journeys, compared to 2019. Previous estimate was a fall of 51 per cent. GDP supported by aviation in the region could fall by up to $35 billion. IATA previously estimated a $28 billion decline.
IATA’s Regional Vice President for Africa and the Middle East, Muhammad Al Bakri, said COVID-19 had devastated African economies and brought air connectivity across the continent to a virtual standstill.
He expressed the need to minimise the impact on jobs and the broader African economy, saying it could be achieved through government action in two priority areas: harmonising the restart of air transport and stepping up support measures.
“We are grateful to the few African governments that have provided relief to aviation so far: Rwanda, Senegal, Côte d’Ivoire, Burkina Faso and, recently, Cape Verde. Their actions have helped to save thousands of jobs and will enable some airlines to restart and support the wider economies they serve,” Al Bakri said.
MEANWHILE, the President of the Nigerian Medical Association (NMA), Prof. Innocent Ujah, told The Guardian yesterday it would be difficult to implement the self-isolation-at-home policy.
He said, “What could be ensured is evidence of test results from the point of departure and also tests as passengers arrive in Nigeria.”
He agreed, however, that passports should be withheld, saying it could help to contain COVID-19.
A virologist and Chairman, Expert Committee on COVID-19, Prof. Oyewale Tomori, said he was worried about the preparedness for likely increase of COVID-19 cases as international flights resumed.
Joint pioneer of In Vitro Fertilisation (IVF) in Nigeria and Medical Director of MART Centre, Maryland, Lagos, Prof. Oladapo Ashiru, stressed the need for arriving passengers to be quarantined for between seven and 14 days.
But rather than withholding travellers passports, he suggested that arriving travellers’ data should be taken to give records of addresses and destinations and next of kin’s details, among others.
“This way, it would be easy to do contact-tracing in the event that someone in that flight eventually tests positive to COVID-19,” he said.
A public health physician and Executive Secretary, Enugu State Agency for Control of AIDS (ENSACA), Dr. Chinedu Idoko, said it might not be practical to quarantine and test all arriving passengers at airports. He, however, suggested that quarantine should be enforced where a passenger was strongly suspected.
A public health expert and Executive Director, Delta State Contributory Health Commission (DSCHC), Dr. Ben Nkechika, argued that passengers should be quarantined. He, however, dismissed the idea of withholding passports to make passengers return to airports for test results.
“We need to involve the latest and proven technology in the COVID-19 pandemic response. This is the digital age. Nigeria should not be behind with its enormous resources,” he said.
A public health physician and team leader at Lagos State Isolation Centre and former medical director of Lagos University Teaching Hospital (LUTH), Idi Araba, Prof. Akin Osibogun, argued that isolation could be supervised at home or at designated centres, stressing that what was important was for the state to have in place mechanisms to ensure adequate supervision of returnees and contain the spread of infection.