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Health officials explain rationale behind continued allowance of incoming UK flights

By Orville Williams

The country’s top health officials have cited the Covid-19 management systems in place, and the lack of confirmation relating to transmission of the new virus variant, as reasons the government will continue to allow incoming flights from the UK.

The new variant of SARS-CoV-2 (called B.1.1.7) – the virus that causes Covid-19 – was discovered in the UK in September, but it has been rapidly spreading in England, reportedly accounting for more than 60% of the cases in London.

New lockdowns have been implemented in the country as a result, erasing previous plans by the British government for an ease of restrictions over the Christmas and New Year holidays. Perhaps more importantly, a host of countries have begun to introduce fresh travel restrictions on incoming UK travel, including regional neighbours, Grenada and Jamaica.

The government of Antigua and Barbuda though, has decided not to take similar action, a decision that could be described as polarising at best. An increase in tourism movement from source markets like the UK and the US over the next few months, was identified as sort of a cushion to the economic blow suffered for much of this year. In fact, reports in November said flight and hotel bookings were steadily increasing.

While much of the tourism industry is looking forward to that much-need financial injection, there are others in the country who believe the mitigation of this ‘new threat’ should include fresh travel restrictions on the UK.

However, addressing a Ministry of Health media conference yesterday, Health Minister Sir Molwyn Joseph, expressed confidence that the systems currently in place can handle the threat of the new variant.

“From time to time, we are faced with having to make similar decisions within a specific time or specific timeframe. There is nothing static about managing Covid. When developments take place, we have to respond based on our capacity at a particular time and [consider] what are the issues involved in the process of managing Covid [regarding] the transmission.

“Any transmission – especially this new variant of the virus – in our estimation, will be successfully managed by the Ministry of Health and all the other ministries involved, by applying the same set of protocols and the rules governing the ports of entry in Antigua and Barbuda.

“When I refer to the ports of entry and the activities there, I emphasise the importance of good surveillance and the work done by our health officials at the ports of entry. What we have to consider with this new variant of the virus, is whether or not we have the capacity in place where we could effectively manage this new variant – and I’m confident that we do,” Sir Molwyn declared.

Meanwhile, the Chief Medical Officer, Dr Rhonda Sealy-Thomas, clarified that – despite reports saying otherwise – there has been no confirmation to this point that the new variant is any more transmissible.

“It has been reported that the new variant is more transmissible than other variants. I was in a weekly briefing with the World Health Organisation (WHO) just this morning, and there, it was emphasised that it has not yet been proven that that is in fact so. [However], because of the nature of Covid-19, they’re being very cautious, and they are treating this new variant as if it is more transmissible – but that has not been confirmed as yet.

“We need to note that all viruses, including SARS-CoV-2, change over time and so far, there have been hundreds of variations of this virus identified worldwide; PAHO/WHO have been following them closely,” Dr Sealy-Thomas explained.

She also disclosed that an investigation will get underway shortly, to determine whether Antigua and Barbuda has been exposed to the new variant.

“In a meeting with CARPHA just this week, they – collaborating with the University of the West Indies – will be doing sequences of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that would have been circulating in the region, including Antigua and Barbuda.

“So, in a few days, we’ll be able to know what variant has been circulating in Antigua and in the region, and whether or not the variant that they have identified so far has been in Antigua and Barbuda. Certainly, we will be bringing that information to the public.”

Lionel Hurst, Chief of Staff in the Office of the Prime Minster, also disclosed yesterday that there was no indication – up to Tuesday afternoon – from the major carriers out of the UK, that they are considering scaling down flights due to the new restrictions implemented in Britain.

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