Nepal mulls longer quarantines


Nepal’s Ministry of Health has recommended that everyone entering Nepal from land borders or Kathmandu airport have to stay in quarantine for 14 days. 

The ministry said that in view of the current global Covid-19 resurgence in Europe and the United States, its Incident Command System meeting had recommended to the Covid-19 Crisis Management Centre (CCMC) that it extend the current 7-day quarantine to two weeks.

“We have written to the CCMC to cancel all previous protocols and to have the 14-day quarantine in place for all land and air travellers,” said Ministry of Health spokesperson Jageshwar Gautam, who added that only those with symptoms would have to be tested at the end of it.

At present passengers arriving at Kathmandu airport can only board their flights if they have a PCR negative report not longer than 72 hours before departure, but have to stay in home or hotel quarantine for a 7-day period after arrival. Only foreigners who have a confirmed trek or mountaineering expedition booking are being given visas on arrival at present, and they need to take another test before heading off to the mountains.

If approved by the CCMC, the 14-day quarantine rule would also apply to Nepalis flying home, as well as people crossing over the open land border from India where checking is lax.

The various ministries appear to be working at cross purposes because the Ministry of Tourism and Civil Aviation has also sent a proposal to the CCMC to allow all foreigners, not just trekkers and mountaineers, to come to Nepal as long as they complete a short hotel quarantine and test negative at the end of it. 

The Ministry of Health recommendation has been greeted with widespread criticism, and many say it follows a long list of absurd, contradictory and confusing travel restrictions by the government in the past months. 

International airlines that had started operating flights to Nepal after 1 September say there have been some cancellations over the weekend after the media reported the 14-day quarantine proposal. 

Said one travel trade executive: “First you had the stupid rule that only foreigners who want to trek and climb a mountain are allowed. What if they wanted to go white water rafting, or paragliding, or for an elephant safari? Why only trekking and mountaineering? And now you have another layer of uncertainty.”

Another representative of an international airline said it did not make sense for a country that itself is going through a coronavirus surge to extend the quarantine for people coming in, when the restriction should logically be on people going out. So far Nepal has recorded 223,000 Covid-19 cases with 1,980 more just on Monday, when 16 more deaths were reported, taking the total fatalities to 1,337.

“But even more absurd is the continued ban on flights to and from India, when thousands of people are going back and forth across the border every day,” he said.

India has not lifted its suspension of regular international flights, but conducts repatriation charters for its citizens and has ‘air bubble’ agreements with 20 countries. New Delhi had offered Kathmandu to be a part of this arrangement, but the Nepal government has so far held back, inconveniencing tens of thousands of its own citizens in India.

Airline representatives say the government should be more concerned about Nepalis going abroad with fake or false negative PCR reports, which led to a third two-week restriction on Nepal Airlines flying to Hong Kong.

Hong Kong is seeing a fourth wave of Covid-19 that public health officials in the territory blamed on imported cases from Nepal. The third two-week ban on Nepal Airlines Kathmandu-Hong Kong flights will end on Wednesday, and the carrier has said it will henceforth only accept PCR negative reports from government-approved ‘A level’ clinics. 

The latest outbreaks in Hong Kong have been traced to passengers arriving from Kathmandu, and led to the cancellation of a Singapore-Hong Kong ‘air bubble’ that was to go into effect last week. Hong Kong has also banned Air India flights from Delhi for the fifth time till 3 December after passengers tested positive on arrival. 

Dubai and Narita airports as well have issued warnings to Nepal Airlines about passengers with unreliable tests arriving from Kathmandu. Reports said at least 2-5 passengers arriving in Tokyo on every Nepal Airlines flight from Kathmandu have been testing positive.

Nepal Airlines says it has been accepting printouts of PCR tests before issuing boarding passes to passengers at Kathmandu airport, but has no way to verify if they are fake. The government has blacklisted some private labs whose certificates turned out to be false negatives when passengers from Kathmandu were tested on arrival in Hong Kong, Dubai and Narita.

The lack of clarity has thrown into doubt plans of many Nepalis living, studying and working in Australia, Canada and North America to fly home during the Christmas New Year holidays.