With countries now requiring travellers to provide vaccination certificates, travelling abroad may become a different ball game for Pakistanis
The failure of the government to come up with a reasonable strategy on foreign travel is being blamed for the confusion among Pakistani citizens intending to travel abroad. A lack of strict protocols for inbound passengers has made Pakistan vulnerable to greater spread of Covid-19, especially in view of the recent emergence of new variants in several parts of the world.
The federal and provincial health authorities, in cooperation with the National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA), have set up an efficient system to expedite the issuance of certificates to vaccinated citizens for travel purposes to meet the requirements of their destination countries.
The Ministry of National Health Services, Regulations and Coordination (MNHSR&C) and the National Command and Operation Centre (NCOC) in collaboration with NADRA have a National Immunization Management System (NIMS) for citizens’ registration for vaccination and subsequent certification purposes. The officials concerned are required to keep proper vaccination records for further requirements.
Farrukh Mushtaq, a NADRA deputy director in Lahore, says that the authority issues vaccination certificates after the second dose of the vaccine at centres established in major cities. Mushtaq says that the fee for a certificate is Rs 100 and “vaccinated individuals can download vaccination certificates from NIMS’ website after paying the required fee.”
He adds that the process for certification starts as soon as one gets registered and receives a PIN code and date for vaccination. On the basis of the online vaccination record kept by the NIMS, the NADRA, then, issues vaccination certificates. These certificates have to be attached to the passport to travel abroad as per the requirements of foreign countries.
Saad bin Ayub, a spokesperson for the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), says that “the CAA has received no advisory for inbound passengers about mandatory vaccination against Covid-19”. Meanwhile, all other countries have their advisories for travellsers from Pakistan, he says. At its strictest, the CAA, allowed entry to foreign travellers or expatriate Pakistanis upon the presentation of a Covid-19 negative report.
China and Saudi Arabia now require all inbound travellers to be vaccinated. The CAA may check the passengers heading to these destinations but isn’t required legally to stop a passenger from traveling for a lack of vaccination. “These travellers may face strict checks on arrival. They may even get deported for failing to comply with the regulations of the host country”, says Ayub
The British government has slapped strict quarantine requirements on travellers from Pakistan with effect from April 9 to curb the spread of Covid-19 transmission in its country. Pakistan had earlier lifted restrictions on travellers from the UK on March 20, despite reports of a severe “UK variant” with a high rate of transmission in the UK. No other country, including the USA and Canada, has imposed travel restrictions on Pakistan so far.
Ayub is of the view that Pakistan seemed to be relying mainly on foreign countries, such as the UK, Brazil and South Africa, to combat the SARS-CoV-2 variants in their countries and to impose travel restrictions. He says strict protocols are being followed at all airports in Pakistan. “Initially, there were certain issues in the enforcement of these protocols, but now passengers maintain proper social distancing, many voluntarily get themselves tested, the airport building, furniture, flights and luggage are regularly disinfected,” he adds.
The British government has slapped restrictions on travellers from Pakistan with effect from April 9 to curb the spread of Covid-19 transmission in its country. Pakistan had earlier lifted travel restrictions upon travellers from the UK on March 20, despite reports of a severe “UK variant” with a high rate of transmission in the UK.
Prof Dr Asad Aslam Khan, chief coordinator for Covid-19, says that the Pakistan government is issuing certification cards to the vaccinated citizens to fulfill international commitments but Khan, who is also the Co-Chairman of Corona Experts Advisory Group (CEAG), says a clear-cut policy for inbound passengers is needed to stop the further spread of coronavirus in Pakistan.
Currently, as per government’s guidelines, all international air passengers are subject to screening for Covid-19 symptoms on arrival, including thermal screening, at Pakistani airports. They are required to provide their contact information through the “Pass Track App” or through a web-based form, and if necessary, fill a health declaration form as well. The international travellers, presenting symptoms of Covid-19, are allowed to proceed to their destinations, but are required to take a Covid-19 test within 48 hours of arrival and submit the results of the test to the authorities. If the test is positive, the person has to self-isolate in line with Pakistan’s health guidelines.
Although Pakistan has devised a travel advisory for international travellers, there has been no enforcement mainly due to the lack of knowledge among relevant CAA and health authorities owing to the government’s failure to circulate the advisory. This has left many loopholes in the system that allow the spread of coronavirus in Pakistan from other countries. “The federal government has mainly relied on posting travel guidelines for international travellers on a website instead of circulating the notification to CAA and health authorities,” says Maqbool Malick, a spokesman for the Punjab Specialised Healthcare and Medical Education Department (SHC&MED).
The government has divided all countries into three categories with different guidelines in order to curb the propagation of the coronavirus from other countries.
The countries in Category-A are exempt from mandatory Covid-19 testing, countries in Category-B require a mandatory negative Covid-19 RT-PCR test that has to be taken within 72 hours of the arrival, and the countries in Category-C are restricted and are only allowed as per guidelines by NCOC.
The countries in Category-A include Australia, Bhutan, China, Fiji, Japan, Kazakhstan, Laos, Mongolia, Mauritania, Morocco, Myanmar, Nepal, New Zealand, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Tajikistan, Trinidad and Tobago, and Vietnam.
Travellers from these countries are exempt from Covid-19 testing.
The countries in Category-C include South Africa, Botswana, Ghana, Kenya, Comoros, Mozambique, Zambia, Tanzania, Rwanda, Brazil, Peru, Columbia, Chile, Eswatini, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Malawi, Seychelles, Somalia, Suriname, Uruguay and Venezuela. Travellers from these countries are restricted and only allowed as guided by NCOC’s decision. All other countries fall in Category-B.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) has set up a Crisis Management Unit, with contacts of focal persons to help the Pakistani Diaspora and those stranded abroad, for coordination and assistance purposes as part of the Covid-19 safety and assistance measures.
Prof Dr Javed Akram, the University of Health Sciences (UHS), Lahore, vice chancellor, advocates that, in view of virus mutations resulting in new variants in different parts of the world, the government must issue a strict travel advisory to stop spread of new forms of coronavirus in Pakistan.
The writer is a reporter at The News. He is based in Lahore