The African Union and the Africa Centres for Disease Control have launched a new initiative to harmonise travel restrictions across the continent but consensus around when passengers should take tests remains elusive.
Individual countries across Africa have implemented their own travel restrictions since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, leading to a complex patchwork of competing regulations and confusion over when travellers should complete a test prior to arrival.
The Saving Lives, Economies and Livelihoods campaign aims to harmonise testing regulations across air, sea and land, supported by a new online pass for travellers – the Trusted Travel MyCovid pass – that will simplify the verification of public health documents during exit and entry and collate data for authorities. The initiative will begin in around 12 major “hub” countries with a wider rollout to follow.
“If you look at the travel restrictions across the continent, you notice that 17 countries out of the 55 still have very stringent restrictions for travel. Twenty-nine countries have free movement of people and nine still have very tight closure measures… To coordinate our air, sea and land movement on the continent, all countries have to have a similar understanding of what we have to do and harmonise that,” said John Nkengasong, director of Africa CDC at the campaign launch press conference.
How far in advance should tests be done?
According to documents for the initiative, travellers are currently encouraged to go to a government certified Covid-19 testing facility for a PCR test 72 hours before their international travel departure time, but Nkengasong suggested that the system will move towards testing five days in advance.
“Part of this initiative is to harmonise that and bring the continent to a common understanding of what is needed based on evidence and science. The science behind testing is clear, if someone is infected today, it takes five to seven days to get a positive PCR test. So as a continent one thing we’ll be doing as CDC is coordinating and harmonising that space so there’s uniformity as to how valid your negative PCR test should be and whether you need it on arrival or not.”
Robbie Buck, chairman of South Africa’s Ampath Laboratories, which supplies tests, said that tests can be delivered in less than five days.
“One would sense that 72 hours is going to be the consensus but from the laboratory consensus we could do it within 24 hours… there are countries using airport testing but rapid PCR tests and antigen tests are not as accurate as lab-based PCRs. I would encourage that a time window be allowed for a passenger, something up to 72 hours, but 48 hours would work and would be practical. I look forward to a consensus being reached across Africa.”
Welcome news for airlines
The fledgling initiative was welcomed by embattled Kenya Airways, which says it is still operating at around 20% of pre-Covid ticket sales despite having re-opened flights to 33 African destinations after being grounded for four months.
“Demand still remains depressed, if we look at the number of seats, we’re still at about 20% compared to the level we were pre-Covid. Most travellers are worried about the safety and health of the experience, and the fact that different countries have different requirements creates a lot of complexities. The fact there is no one trusted source for information creates further complexities for customers,” says Julius Thairu, director of sales at Kenya Airways.
Last week, Ethiopian Airlines, the continent’s largest carrier, announced a new insurance scheme for international travellers from 1 October 2020 until 31 March 2021 that will cover medical expenses, including repatriation, evacuation and quarantine costs related to Covid-19, as it seeks to encourage passengers back to air travel.