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Air Bound Passengers Decry COVID-19 Travel Restrictions

Several passengers say that getting a valid negative PCR test certificate within the stipulated time before a flight is a hurdle. According to the Uganda Civil Aviation Authority-UCAA, all returning and departing passengers must have tested negative for COVID-19 at least 72 hours before traveling.
Some of the incoming and outgoing passengers with their meeters and greeters at Entebbe Airport

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Securing a negative Polymerase Chain Reaction-PCR test within 72 hours of travel has been cited as the biggest hurdle for intending travellers, since the reopening of Entebbe International Airport.  A PCR test looks for pieces, of SARS-COV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, in the nose, throat or other areas of the respiratory tract, to determine if a person has an active infection.

It was given as one of the conditions that passengers must meet before boarding a plane to Uganda, on top of fulfilling other travel requirements, which include arriving at the airport at least four hours before the scheduled departure time, maintaining a physical distance of 1.5 meters to avoid physical contact and wearing a facemask, at all times.

But several passengers say that getting a valid negative PCR test certificate within the stipulated time before a flight is a hurdle. According to the  Uganda Civil Aviation Authority-UCAA, all returning and departing passengers must have tested negative for COVID-19 at least 72 hours before travelling.

However, some of the passengers told Uganda Radio Network that getting a certificate within the prescribed period is a nightmare. They decry the high cost of COVID-19 tests and the delayed release of test results.  COVID-19 tests currently cost more than 240,000 Shillings and can only be done by approved medical laboratories, mostly in Kampala.

The nine approved laboratories include the Uganda Virus Research Institute, the Central Public Health Laboratory, Makerere University, Mukula Mobile Laboratory, Tororo Mobile Laboratory. Adjumani Mobile Laboratory, Infectious Disease Institute, Mildmay and Lancet Laboratories.

Richard Okello, an IT specialist, says his wife and child who have now departed for Ethiopia, had a hard time getting COVID-19 test certificates within the initial 120 hours required before their departure time. He says his family also did not benefit from the reduction in one-way air ticket prices to Ethiopia. 

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Another passenger, whose name was withheld on request, told URN that he had to pay 100,000 Shillings to a health officer at one of the approved testing centres in Kampala to fast track the release of his test results. This is because several people who had already bought air tickets also went to the same centre for testing, which could have increased his waiting time.

The passengers say that there are long queues at both public and private facilities. But, the results from public facilities take longer to return.            

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A female Ugandan in Kenya says that airlines have sent messages to clients indicating that they must have a negative PCR COVID-19 test certificate which they will present at the immigration booths, check-in online, and wear a face mask on-board and off-board.

Passengers are also expected to fill an online passenger health surveillance form before they land. The passenger must among others, indicate their seat number on the plane to ease contact tracing once any passenger tests positive for COVID-19.        

Meanwhile, three Ugandans who returned from the Middle East have welcomed the removal of the requirement of a 14-day institutional quarantine for all inbound passengers. One of them says that she paid USD 33, (123,000 Shillings) for a COVID-19 test in Oman. But, her biggest concern was the cost of the air tickets and quarantine in private hotels which would push her bill to over 4 million Shillings.

But while Uganda has removed the mandatory quarantine as a travel restriction, travellers to the Netherlands, Canada and Hawaii, among others will undertake mandatory quarantine of 14 days.     

Meanwhile, at the airport, a tent has been erected outside the departures section to de-congest the check-in queues.   Only 50 people will be allowed at the check-in hall at a go, yet, the hall could house over 200 people.