The government enforced mandatory institutional quarantine for 14 days from January 1 for any incoming passenger from the UK, soon after some 200 returnees from the country entered Bangladesh by slipping through lax screening at the airports
At a time when a proper screening of incoming travellers has become the first line of defence against the spread of a new and more contagious coronavirus, passengers have raised questions over a lapse in maintaining health protocols at airports and quarantine facilities in the country.
The government recently enforced mandatory institutional quarantine for 14 days from January 1 for any incoming passenger from the United Kingdom soon after some 200 returnees from the country entered Bangladesh after slipping through lax screening at the airports.
However, the government did not ban or impose travel restrictions on flights to and from the UK, although some 40 countries around the world have already done so.
Many returnees have also complained that the authorities turned a blind eye to mismanagement in enforcing health safety rules such as maintaining social distancing, washing hands and using face masks among passengers at the international airports in Dhaka and Sylhet and during air travel.
Did authorities fail to enforce strict health guidelines?
Following a directive from Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, the Health Ministry signed an agreement with seven hotels in Dhaka to provide quarantine facilities for passengers returning from the UK.
However, many passengers have expressed their dissatisfaction and complained of poor health safety management at government-approved hotels, quarantine facilities and during air travel.
A number of UK returnees, who are now in quarantine, told Dhaka Tribune that the airports had become a hotspot for the spread of the virus due to a lack in proper medical equipment and lax screening facilities.
Zahirul Islam, who returned from London to Dhaka on January 1 and is now in quarantine at Memento International hotel in Uttara, said after getting off his crowded plane, he did not see any precautionary measures being taking to ensure health safety protocols inside the airport.
“Everybody is violating health safety guidelines and the authorities remain unaware of the entire situation,” he said.
He also complained that health safety protocols were also not being followed inside aircraft during flights.
“If someone is infected, then it has already been transmitted to other passengers during the flight,” he added.
He further alleged that even the government-sanctioned hotels did not have adequate hygiene management even after being authorised to handle people in quarantine.
Dr Kamrul Islam, another UK returnee who is now in quarantine at Hajj camp centre at Dhaka’s Ashkona, suggested there was a high chance of passengers getting infected by cabin crews, airport officials, cleaners and other staff at the quarantine centres.
“Health safety measures were taken during the flight to Dubai from the UK. However, no such measures were taken for passengers coming to Bangladesh from Dubai,” said the expatriate physician.
Emphasizing that the government should routinely check for infection among airport employees, he said that there was no need to quarantine UK returnees as all of them already carried a new strain virus free certificate.
“There is no possibility of infection from the returnees,” he suggested from his experience.
He also opined that UK returnees could be sent home after a rapid antigen test at the airport.
How UK returnees are being quarantined
Talking to Dhaka Tribune, the Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport (HISA) Director, Group Captain AHM Touhid-ul Ahsan said after arriving at the airport, UK returnees are taken to the health desk by the airport security team and then sent to institutional quarantine under the supervision of the Bangladesh Army.
Passengers are being normally screened at the airport as per the list provided by flight operators. Then they are sent to government-sanctioned hotels or quarantine centres as per their choice, said the HISA director.
Biman Bangladesh Airlines operates direct flights to the UK on Monday and Thursday each week while Qatar, Emirates, Fly Dubai, Turkish and Etihad airways also carry passengers from the UK.
HSIA Chief Health Officer Dr Shahriar Sajjad said passengers first fill out a health status form and choose their preferred quarantine centre from among private and government facilities. All passengers go through mandatory health checks and get certified by health officials to be able to enter the country.
“To stay in a hotel for quarantine, a passenger will need to spend from Tk3,500 to Tk7,000 for a single bed room per night and Tk4,500 to Tk8,000 for a double bed room per night. However, the cost depends on hotel facilities and as per government arrangements,” he said.
Meanwhile, passengers staying at government quarantine centres will need to spend Tk8,000 to Tk9,000 on average.
The airport health official also acknowledged complaints put forward by passengers regarding poor health safety measures at the airport and held out the assurance that immediate measures would be taken in this regard.
He, however, said the airport was facing problems in the screening process as airlines fail to provide accurate information on passengers they were carrying from the UK.
“For example, if an airline informs us that it has carried two passengers from the UK but later it is found during checking that they carried a total of four people, then the other two passengers have already mixed with regular passengers which raises the risk of infection,” he added.
“We have warned the airliners to mark UK passengers before departure and maintain safe distance inside the airlines during travel,” said the chief health officer.
However, Emirates and Qatar airways officials claimed that although they had to consider the commercial aspects of operating flights, they were committed to maintain health guidelines during travel.
In the last three days, a total of 57 returnees from the UK were sent to institutional quarantine. Of them, 19 are at the Hajj Camp centre in Ashkona.
Talking to Dhaka Tribune over the complaints lodged by the returnees, Hajj Camp In-charge Major Mustafa Kamal Kushal said: “We are only monitoring the government quarantine centres. But we will look into any irregularities at private quarantine centres.
Meanwhile, Sylhet Civil Surgeon Dr Premananda Mondal said the passengers from the UK were being quarantined at a government-designated centre at Bangladesh Rural Development Training Institute (BRDTI along with eight government-approved hotels for quarantine in Sylhet city.
Sylhet Osmani International Airport Manager Hafiz Ahmed said health safety measures were being ensured at the airport as before keeping focus on the safety of expatriates.
Initially, passengers were being quarantined in two hotels, he added.
Another flight of Biman Bangladesh carrying 41 passengers from the United Kingdom landed at Osmani International Airport on Monday.
On December 23, 2020, Health Minister Zahid Malek said that if any passenger from the UK arrived in Bangladesh without a Covid-19 negative certificate, he/she would have to stay in the mandatory quarantine for 14 days. He also said that separate lines would be marked off at the airport for passengers from the UK who did not have Covid-19 negative certificates, and special tests would be arranged.
On Sunday, State Minister for Civil Aviation Md Mahbub Ali said that no decision had been taken to suspend air communication with any country, including the UK.
Till Sunday, a total of 7,626 people have died and 516,019 cases of coronavirus infection have been recorded in Bangladesh since the country’s first case was registered in March 2020.