By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
The aviation operator that returned seven persons to The Bahamas before they had been tested for COVID-19 yesterday described it as “a storm in a tea cup”, and added: “We have to get beyond the fear-mongering.”
Paul Aranha, president of Trans-Island Airways, told Tribune Business the episode had “not been put in the proper context”, and was wrongly cast in a negative light, even though the return of the seven from Jamaica had been handled in accordance with all necessary health and safety protocols established by the prime minister.
Pointing out that Bahamian and international travellers will likely have to live and adapt to COVID-19 for some months to come, Mr Aranha said Dr Hubert Minnis in his May 3 national address had given permission for persons to be approved to return home without previously being tested for the virus and cleared.
“Each person will be required to obtain a RT-PCR COVID-19 molecular diagnostic test from an accredited lab prior to returning, unless otherwise approved to have the test administered upon arrival,” the Prime Minister said. This is further affirmed by the Emergency Powers (COVID-19) (No.3) Order 2020, which was signed by Dr Minnis on March 8.
In “Part E”, which deals with the “protocol for the return of citizens and legal residents of The Bahamas”, section 3 (a) confirms that persons are allowed to take the RTPCR COVID-19 test via the Ministry of Health “on arrival” in this nation as opposed to before they board the flight.
Mr Aranha said this was exactly what Trans-Island Airways and its passengers had complied with, adding that Jamaica’s testing per capita COVID-19 testing rate was much lower than The Bahamas’, meaning it would have been virtually impossible for them to obtain tests before boarding the flight to come home.
He confirmed that all were tested upon arrival at Lynden Pindling International Airport (LPIA) in the presence of five Immigration officers, five Customs personnel, three Ministry of Health employees, two airport security staff and one policeman. Once the two-hour process was completed, the seven - six Bahamians and one Jamaican - were all taken to a government-run quarantine facility where they must spend the next 14 days to ensure they are COVID-19 free.
Arguing that all involved had followed the correct procedures, Mr Aranha described the subsequent negative coverage as “just noise in the market”. He added: “This incident, it’s a storm in a tea cup. It was not given its proper context. We have to get beyond the fear-mongering taking place about anyone coming into the country. They’ve tried to make it seem like a big scary thing.”
“People need to come to terms with travelling with this virus, and the protocols put in place by the Ministry of Health and Civil Aviation Authority to protect them and stop the spread of the virus but allow people to come home and be with their families and those they love.”
Mr Aranha added that it was a myth to suggest all private chartered flights returning Bahamians to their homeland were being financed by wealthy family members and individuals. Recalling the flight that aroused media controversy, he said: “I can tell you that on that flight there was no one who was remotely wealthy.
“It was a bunch of kids whose parents scrapped together to get them home. A lot of it is people making sacrifices to be able to travel. It was an awful lot of work on behalf of the operator [Trans-Island], the Civil Aviation Authority and the Ministry of Health to make this happen.”
Mr Aranha also hit out at the Government department he believed was responsible for leaking details of the flight, including the passengers’ names and passport numbers, out on social media. Questioning whether anyone would be held accountable for the leak of confidential/personal information, he did not name the agency involved, although this newspaper understands he was referring to the Immigration Department.
“We have a relatively clear idea of the department that leaked the information because I’m the only person that has all the documents,” Mr Aranha said.