By Orville Williams
The call for residents to get fully vaccinated against Covid-19 has again taken center stage, as the tightening of quarantine restrictions for those returning from travel abroad was announced yesterday.
With the rebound of the tourism sector ongoing, and the threat of new virus variants continuing to hover, the government insists that the measure is meant to encourage vaccinations and reduce the risk of infection spread.
“It’s not a prosecution, it is the reality that there is a higher level of risk associated with persons who have not been vaccinated, and they have a higher ability to transmit the virus when they become infected,” Information Minister Melford Nicholas told yesterday’s post-Cabinet media briefing.
Just last month, returning nationals and residents who were fully vaccinated were allowed to quarantine in their homes for up to seven days, while awaiting the results of their on-arrival PCR tests, administered at the VC Bird International airport.
That on-arrival test was in addition to the mandatory pre-departure test – taken no more than three days prior to travel – that was presented to port health officials. Based on the processing time, travelers could have spent as little as two days in quarantine before being allowed to roam free.
The same seven-day quarantine applied for those partially or unvaccinated, though they were made to spend up to five days before receiving their on-arrival test results. They were not given the automatic privilege of quarantining at home, but each person’s situation was assessed and they were made to quarantine in the government facility if the authorities were not satisfied with the assessment.
The new rules were announced yesterday, and to the chagrin of those who have neither received two doses of a two-dose vaccine nor a shot of a single-dose vaccine, they cater almost exclusively to the fully vaccinated.
For that grouping of incoming travelers, a pre-departure Covid-19 test is still required, but the validity requirement has been relaxed to no more than seven days prior to travel. Those travelers will also be allowed to proceed to their homes “unimpeded” upon arrival, they will not be required to spend any time in quarantine and they will not be required to take an on-arrival test.
One point that Nicholas said still needs consideration, is whether the restrictions on their transportation from the airport will remain in place. At this point, all travelers must utilise the taxi service there, to reduce the risk of infection spread. This could change for the fully vaccinated as early as next week, when the Cabinet makes a decision.
Now, the rules are vastly different for those people who are not fully vaccinated, as they will be made to quarantine in the government facility at Jolly Beach for 14 days, with no allowances made for home quarantine.
They will also be expected to cover the cost of their stay there – approximately EC$82.00 or US$30.00 – as well as a PCR test to be administered on their 12th day of quarantine.
Nicholas advised persons who may be worried about the financial burden associated with the quarantine on a more cost-effective solution.
“Clearly, it is something that anyone can avoid, because if persons are concerned about the cost…the vaccines are free and that would be the least cost for any individual to contemplate.”
The Information Minister clarified that the strict government quarantine for the unvaccinated was due to the negligence of returning residents, who have continuously breached the rules and threatened the safety of the population.
In addressing a similar issue where breaches are concerned, he warned that fresh sanctions will be put in place.
“The Cabinet did take this decision [on Wednesday], anyone who comes to any one of the ports of entry, makes any false declaration to the port health officials and the port health officials were to discover that, there is a fine of $500 that will be applicable to each of those individuals,” Nicholas said.
The government is also looking to relocate its quarantine facility from the Jolly Beach Hotel, as it will be required to help satisfy the expected demand from stayover visitors during the next tourism season.
According to Nicholas, the old US Air Force Base – which has undergone some renovations since last year – is the most likely solution to that issue.