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Omicron: UK Under Fire for Travel Apartheid against Nigeria

As global outrage continues to trail recent travel ban placed on Nigeria and some other African countries by the United Kingdom (UK), a development which has been described as racist

As global outrage continues to trail recent travel ban placed on Nigeria and some other African countries by the United Kingdom (UK), a development which has been described as racist and discriminatory, Nigeria’s federal government on Monday officially condemned the decision of the UK to put the country on its red list and place a ban on foreign travels following its detection of Omicron variant.

The Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, who addressed journalists in Abuja, described the decision of the UK government targeting Nigerian travellers as discriminatory, unfair, punitive, indefensible and unjust.

The Secretary General of the United Nations, Mr. Antonio Guterres, also joined to strongly condemn what he termed “travel apartheid” being meted on some developing countries, mostly in Africa as part of their strategy to curtail the spread of Omicron variant.

This is just as Nigeria’s High Commissioner to the UK, Sarafa Tunji Isola, who was on a media round in UK yesterday, aligned with the position of the Guterres in describing the action by the UK government as “travel apartheid.”

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Isola said what was expected on the matter was a global approach to halt the spread of the disease and not selective punishment.

Speaking further, the minister also questioned the decision of the UK government, saying it was not driven by science.

The UK has now joined other countries, including Canada, which have taken a similar action against Nigeria over Omicron.

“How do you slam this kind of discriminatory action on a country of 200 million people, just because of less than two dozen cases? Whereas British citizens and residents are allowed to come in from Nigeria, non-residents from the same country are banned.

“The two groups are coming from the same country, but being subjected to different conditions. Why won’t Britain allow people in both categories to come in, and be subjected to the same conditions of testing and quarantine? This is why this decision to ban travellers from Nigeria, who are neither citizens nor residents, is grossly discriminatory and punitive,” Mohammed fumed.

He also raised eyebrows against the UK government action, insisting Omicron did not originate in Nigeria.

“Let me say straight away that it’s up to the Presidential Steering Committee (PSC) to respond to this action by the British government and others, and I have no doubt that the Committee will respond appropriately.

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“However, as the spokesman for the federal government, I can say, without mincing words, that the decision by the British government to put Nigeria on the red list, just because of less than two dozen cases of Omicron which, by the way, did not originate in Nigeria, is unjust, unfair, punitive, indefensible and discriminatory. The decision is also not driven by science,” he said.

He said the British took a decision that was prompted by reflex responses instead of science and taking a serious look at the issue of access to vaccines, “as well as ensure that it is based on the principles grounded in the right of every human to enjoy the highest attainable standard of health without discrimination on the basis of race, religion, political belief, economic or any other social condition.”

The minister noted that such knee-jack reaction of placing a travel ban on Nigeria would be detrimental to the country’s quest to conclusively tackle the pandemic.

The minister added: “Many developed countries have used the advantage of their enormous resources or relationship to sign agreements with manufacturers to supply their countries with vaccines ahead of making them available for use by other countries.

“Even before the clinical trials were completed, millions of doses of the most promising vaccines have been bought by Britain, US, Japan and the EU. Some of these countries bought doses five times the size of their population, while others, mostly in Africa, have little or no access to vaccines.

“This is the real issue to address, instead of choosing the easy path of travel bans, which the UN Secretary General called ‘Travel Apartheid.’ Let the world know that no one is safe until everyone is safe”

He stressed that in the wake of the discovery of Omicron, the PSC, unlike the UK adopted science-driven actions, rather than those based on emotions and other extraneous reasons.

According to him, PSC reviewed its International Travel Protocol, which took effect on Sunday, December 5, 2021, aimed at further reducing the risk of importation and exportation of COVID-19, especially the variants of concern.

Under the revised protocol, passengers arriving in Nigeria are expected to provide evidence of and comply with rules including COVID-19 PCR test to be done within 48 hours before departure, post-arrival Day 2 COVID-19 PCR test, self-isolation for seven days (for unvaccinated and partially-vaccinated individuals) and day 7 post-arrival exit PCR test (for unvaccinated and partially vaccinated individuals) among others.

“If any country is not satisfied with them, why not simply subject Nigerians arriving in their country to their own PCR tests and proven conditions, like quarantine, instead of banning them out rightly?” he wondered.

Muhammed expressed hope that the British government would review the decision to ban Nigeria and rescind its decision immediately, saying Nigeria should not be on the red list as it had handled the COVID-19 pandemic with utmost responsibility and based on science, and has rightly earned global accolades for its efforts.

UN Secretary General Rejects ‘Travel Apartheid’

Speaking in an interview, Guterres insisted that targeting the most vulnerable nations with travel ban for revealing the existence of the virus that was already present in Europe was unacceptable in a world that has the instruments to ensure safe travel.

Guterres said travel apartheid must be condemned, saying it was unacceptable.

“We have the instruments to have safe travels, let us use those instruments to avoid this kind of… allow me to say, travel apartheid, which I think is unacceptable. What is unacceptable is to have one part of the world that is one of the most vulnerable parts of the world economy condemned to a lockout when they were the ones that revealed the existence of a new variant that, by the way already existed in other parts of the world, including in Europe as we know.

“So this is a very strong appeal that I launch, an appeal to commonsense that with a virus that is truly borderless travel restrictions that isolate anyone or country or region are not only deeply unfair and punitive they are ineffective.”

In a move that many have described as rushed, ill-advised and lacking scientific basis added Nigeria to its red list, which contains 11 mostly Southern African countries becomes effective from today.

In addition, on Monday, the UK government, took further measures against Nigeria as the British High Commission announced that it would pause “making decisions” on visitor visa applications from all red list countries, including Nigeria.

Latest figures from the UK government on its website revealed that 21 cases of omicron reported in England were linked to travel from Nigeria.

Nigeria’s High Commissioner to UK kicks against Restriction

On his part, Isola, in an interview with BBC, described the travel ban as an apartheid in the sense that, “we are not dealing with an endemic. We are dealing with a pandemic. Whenever we have a challenge there must be collaboration.”

He added: “Nigeria’s Minister of Health did come out with a statement yesterday saying between November 22nd and 28th, 67 passengers that tested positive were discovered in Nigeria and many of them happened to be travellers from the UK. But that would not be a basis for Nigeria taking such action against UK.

“The message is very clear. If there was a mistake, it takes courage of leadership to admit it was an error and not a sign of weakness.”

He pointed out that the cases of omicron discovered in Nigeria were from in-bound travelers.

According to him, a lot of persons would be greatly affected by the action of the UK government, saying, “a lot of people have gone home – doctors, nurses – who are working in the UK and providing health services to NHIS and you can imagine the effect, even on Britain. In addition, we are talking of the anger of 200 million people. This decision is going to hamper our relationship with UK, which is why I am not happy about that.”

“As at today, this variant is classified as a mild one and there has not been any hospitalisation nor death, scientist still working on it. This is quite different from the Delta variant and decision must be based on scientific and empirical evidence.

“We must have the facts that the variant we are talking about is dangerous. And that is why we need collaboration all over the world to ascertain the nature of the variant,” he added.

The UK, at the weekend, had updated its so called Red List, indicating countries prohibited from entering the UK in view of the new COVID-19 variant called “omicron”.

Also speaking with Arise News Channel yesterday, Ishola revealed that Nigeria would this week begin high level discussions with UK, in its efforts to seek a quick and amicable resolution to the restriction of Nigerians from visiting the country.

He said this week, Nigeria would begin talks with the British government, but quickly added that he was not willing to pre-empt what the country would do if its request to be delisted from the list was ignored.

He opined that under normal circumstances, the world should have saluted the efforts of the South African Medical Association for alerting everyone to the Omicron variant and rally round to solve the problem rather than the discriminatory action.

The high commissioner maintained South Africa had confirmed that the variant does not involve any hospitalisation or death, stressing that the issue of slamming bans on account of a “mild variant” was not the right thing to do.

While stating that the coronavirus did not originate from Africa, he noted that the leaders of the continent were doing everything to ensure that the vaccines come to Africa but that what comes to Africa has been very limited.

According to the envoy, Nigeria has handled the COVID-19 pandemic excellently and should be commended , reason the travel restrictions this time is causing an outrage.

While insisting that the UK’s decision wasn’t backed by scientific evidence, he said: “So, this is not acceptable. That’s why we’re making it very clear. There is no scientific evidence as of today that shows that this variant is deadlier.”

He narrated that Nigerians were already reacting to the travel ban in their different ways, recalling that on a on a Virgin Atlantic flight from Lagos earlier in the day, only 24 people were on board which was a form of subtle protest because an average Nigerian does not believe that the country deserves the shabby treatment.

“I’m sure many of them will not subject themselves to such (conditions). The travel ban came Saturday night. Today is the first working day and I can assure you that before the end of the week, we will engage with the host authorities,” he assured.

He mentioned that with a relationship that dates back more than a century, both countries be deepening their ties rather than taking actions that will taint the relationship.

“The ties between Nigeria and Britain date back to more than one century. This relationship is not where it should be. And we’re just making efforts to deepen the relationship before this ban came up.

“I don’t even want to think that there won’t be a reconsideration of the decision. We’ll have to dialogue at the end of the day to have a compromise on this issue,” the envoy added.

Stating that the matter has its economic and political dimensions, he expressed that hope that the British government will reverse the decision as it does not make much sense to ban a country with three cases where’s those with tens of cases were not listed.

Stakeholders, Travellers Condemn UK’s Decision to Put Nigeria on Red list

In a related development, aviation industry stakeholders and air travellers have condemned the decision of UK to put Nigeria on its redlist.

Speaking with THISDAY Monday, the Chief Operating Officer of Dana Air, Mr. Obi Mbanuzuo, described the decision of UK as a knee-jerk reaction, saying the UK was aware that the omicron was already in Europe even before South Africa announced it to the world, but failed to take action.

“This is a knee jerk reaction which will be soon reversed once they realise that Omicron is already deeply embedded in UK. They can’t keep omicron put by banning Nigerians. What of the Netherlands where we now know had omicron even before the South Africans announced it?” Mbanuzuo said.

Also, the Managing Director of Flight and Logistics Solutions Limited, Mr. Amos Akpan, said the UK government’s decision was not backed by scientific data.

“The data in public domain shows higher number of infected persons found in UK, while the official data says only three cases found in Nigeria. The Omicron variant existed in Spain and a few European countries before a South African scientist pronounced its existence.

“The strict restrictions on Nigerians and other Africans are scientifically unjustified. Therefore, we are left to view it as a kneejerk political reaction. If they stop Nigerians from entry into UK, will they also stop Spanish, Germans, Italians, and Indonesians, who have higher number of infections of the Omicron variant?

“Playing politics with medical science to this extent smacks of apartheid and racism and will not stop further mutation and spread of the virus. The season for this kneejerk reaction is bad for air travel and tourism business for UK, and for Nigeria. British Airways, Virgin Atlantic Airways will feel the impact,” Akpan added.

In his contribution, the President of the National Association of Nigeria Travel Agencies (NANTA), Mrs. Susan Akporiaye condemned the decision of the UK to put Nigeria in the red list and said it was totally uncalled for.

She disclosed that a lot of Nigerians and students in the UK who wanted to come to Nigeria have since cancelled their travel plans, regretting that the action taken by the UK could discourage vaccination.

“The decision taken by the UK by putting Nigeria on the red list is affecting our business. Many people have cancelled their flights. You know, the UK is second home to many Nigerians. A lot of people are cancelling their travel plans because they know if they come to Nigeria they will be made to pay over 2000 pounds and they said they would only review this by December 20, 2021.

“They will review it but it is totally uncalled for. That action will discourage vaccination. After all, Delta variant of COVID-19 appeared in the UK in February this year but there was no overreaction like this. This is making people not to go for the vaccine. It is unlike the US, which is saying that it is only fully vaccinated people that can come,” she said.

Travel expert and the organiser of Akwaaba African Travel Market, Ikechi Ukoh told THISDAY that it was disappointing that the UK could put Nigeria on the red list as the two countries have very close relationship and there is nothing Nigeria has done that the UK was not involved.

Speaking in similar vein, industry consultant and the CEO of Belujane Konsult, Chris Aligbe said that as a country, the UK took the decision to protect its citizens, even though he pointed out that such a decision was hasty.

However, the Regional Airport Manager, South West in charge of the Murtala Muhammed International Airport Terminal, Lagos, Mrs. Victoria Shin-Aba, told THISDAY that the UK carriers, British Airways and Virgin Atlantic operated their flights from Lagos on Monday but the only difference was that BA had shifted its flights from night to morning.

She said that there was no indication yet that other international carriers have received any directive from their host countries, adding that airlines like Lufthansa, Air France and others operated their normal flights from Lagos.

The Secretary General of Aviation Round Table, a think-tank group in the industry, Group Captain John Ojikutu (retd), told THISDAY that considering the long, good relations Nigeria has with the UK, putting Nigeria on red list was condemnable.

He said that diplomatic relations was guided by the principle of reciprocity, noting that Nigeria could ban UK nationals but not British Carriers, as UK did not ban Nigerian carriers, but Nigerian citizens.

Ojikutu added: “What economic sense would it make for BA to be coming to Nigeria under its COVID-19 rules when 90 per cent of its inbound and outbound passengers are Nigerians?”

Onyebuchi Ezigbo, Olawale Ajimotokan, Emmanuel Addeh in Abuja; Chinedu Eze andDike Onwuamaeze in Lagos