Travellers lose as Nigeria-UAE clash on COVID-19 test persists

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Travellers heading to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) from Nigeria have been stuck over the past month due to Nigeria’s clash with the UAE government over pre-departure testing requirements for passengers.

Many have seen their plans crushed, monies lost and appointments ditched over Nigeria’s failure to respond to the UAE’s requirement for the adoption of Rapid Diagnostic Testing (RDT) before boarding.

The Emirates Airline and Air Peace suspended flights from Nigeria to Dubai and Sharjah last month after UAE insisted passengers flying from Nigeria directly must conduct RDT within four hours before departure.

The test is a type of coronavirus assessment that can be done very quickly with results produced in about 15 minutes.

Those feeling the heat of the crisis are asking the Federal Government to provide the facility needed for the RDT in order for operations to return to normal.

“Most passengers travelling to Dubai are transiting to other countries, especially London. Some of these passengers have paid a huge sum of money for return flights but they can’t get a refund now, neither can they travel. They are left with the option of buying another ticket. And for those who cannot afford another ticket, they are waiting and hoping issues between both governments will be resolved soon,” Bankole Bernard, former president, National Association of Nigeria Travel Agencies (NANTA), said.

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Earlier in February, Nigeria banned Emirates Airline temporarily for violating guidelines issued by the COVID-19 Presidential Task Force (PTF), which approves only Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) test for travel purposes.

Nigeria has used that policy largely to curb the wide margin of errors associated with rapid testing as well as reduce importation of the virus.

Interestingly, the country had adopted the use of RDT in hospitals, mostly for health workers on the frontlines, so as to manage the time gap left by PCR based laboratories in processing results.

Although the PCR test detects more accurately than RDTs, waiting for 24 to 72 hours became unbearable in the face of a deadlier second wave.

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Chike Ihekweazu, director-general, Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC), told BusinessDay that his team was in talks with government ministries to get around the use of RDTs for travel.

With confirmed coronavirus cases nearing 200,000, RDT use in the country is currently restricted to hospitals, workplaces, schools with accommodation facilities, camps and prisons.

“We are working with states and other ministries, departments and agencies with respect to airport-related testing. This decision is being coordinated by the PTF-COVID-19, given the multi-sectoral requirements,” Ihekweazu told BusinessDay in an e-mail response.

BusinessDay checks show that an economy class return flight from Lagos to Dubai cost an average of N400, 000 to N550, 000 and Lagos to London on Emirates cost an average of N450, 000 and N650, 000.

A passenger who identified himself as Jude told BusinessDay he had plans to travel to Dubai since February for medical reasons, but he had been stuck in Nigeria trying to manage his ailment while waiting for flights to resume.

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This may also be the predicament of several other people as many Nigerians travel to Dubai for medicals, apart from tourism, which it is widely known for, Jude said.

Stanley Olisa, public relations and communications lead, Air Peace, told BusinessDay the company rarely interferes in health matters under the government’s purview.

“If the government is saying they don’t have that infrastructure, then there is little we can do to help the situation. The airline has to work with the Federal Government to make this work. Such facilities are very expensive,” Olisa stated.

The deadlock between Nigeria and UAE has affected Air Peace operations on the Dubai route, and it has lost revenue as passengers also suffer the impact of disruptions.

He however assured that Air Peace would reschedule flights of affected passengers at no cost.

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