On Sunday and Monday government ministers were scrambling to disentangle the mess created by poor communication, ill-thought-through regulations and mixed messages about regulations for international travellers to South Africa.
Four days after SA reopened its border to international flights, the biggest airline in the world, Emirates, cancelled its flight to Durban for Sunday.
Lufthansa, Germany’s biggest carrier, was also mulling over the suspension of its flights after some of its passengers were denied entry at Johannesburg International because of confusion over updated visa rules.
South Africa’s borders were closed in mid-March to stem the spread of the coronavirus.
The decision to reopen the borders was not made lightly, and President Cyril Ramaphosa announced on 17 September that South Africa would reopen its borders and ports of entry for international business and leisure travel on Thursday 1 October, subject to a slew of rules and regulations.
On the face of it, some of these regulations made sense. Travellers are expected to follow local regulations, including the mandatory wearing of masks in public, practising social distancing, regular washing or sanitising of hands and presenting a negative Covid-19 test result not older than 72 hours from the time of departure.
But from there on, it becomes more confusing.
For a start, the Department of Cooperative Governance neglected to rescind the requirement that all visitors have visas. This was introduced for foreigners arriving on repatriation flights, but should have been scrapped with the resumption of normal scheduled passenger services under lockdown Level 1.
In addition, immigration and port health officials decided to treat aircrew as “visitors”, when they should not be classified in this way at all.
“This resulted in crews being required to go for PCR [polymerase chain reaction] tests three days prior to each flight, just to satisfy SA’s regulations,” says aviation industry expert Linden Birns.
And then there are seemingly random insurance regulations that require that travellers may only enter South Africa if they are in possession of travel insurance to cover the cost of Covid-19 tests and quarantine costs.
It appears that the government has made these unilateral decisions in an attempt to pass the costs relating to their testing and quarantine regulations on to a third party without engaging with the sellers of insurance.
The insurance industry was aghast – insurance works on the premise of uncertainty of an event occurring and a R400 (€20.46) insurance policy will not cover mandated government testing requirements and quarantine costs for a known event.
“It appears that the government has made these unilateral decisions in an attempt to pass the costs relating to their testing and quarantine regulations on to a third party without engaging with the sellers of insurance,” says the head of insurance at Travel Insurance Consultants, Jason Veitch.
“As insurers are under no obligation to take on this level of risk, the government is creating a situation where it is impossible to travel to South Africa.”
The regulations were announced hours before the first flights were due to take off for SA. They were clarified at a media briefing on Friday 2 October, with further adjustments on Saturday evening and Sunday.
On Sunday the Minister of Transport, Fikile Mbalula, clarified that both aircrew and passengers required a PCR certificate not more than 72 hours old and, like passengers, crew would be subjected to screening and prescribed health protocols upon arrival.
The PCR certificate enables crew members to move freely in South Africa upon arrival, similar to passengers.
Aircrew who are not in possession of a negative PCR certificate can enter the country, but will not be permitted to move around freely and will have to self-quarantine at their hotel.
However, the requirements for aircrew operating same-day return flights between SA and other countries in Africa remain unclear. Airlines have appealed to the Department of Tourism for aircrew who are coming and going on the same day, and who don’t need to go through immigration, to be exempted from the Covid-19 test certificate and quarantine requirement.
The Airlines Association of Southern Africa is anticipating clarification on this from Mbalula.
Also on Sunday, the Minister of Home Affairs, Aaron Motsoaledi, reinstated the visa-free status of citizens of some countries. These include South Korea, Spain, Italy, Germany, the US, the UK, Singapore, France, Portugal and Iran.
“The minister has instructed officials to communicate this decision to the aviation industry, embassies and other stakeholders as a matter of urgency,” a department statement read.
Even with this clarification, the Level 1 regulations remain unnecessarily complicated, specifically around South Africa’s risk categorisation model for different international travellers.
This classifies international travellers according to a scale of high, medium and low risk. High-risk travellers are those who come from countries with higher numbers of Covid-19 infections and reported deaths than South Africa and include the UK, the US, Iceland, India, the UAE and Qatar.
Opening of borders is the moment we have all been waiting for, but the way in which the government proposes to reopen is impractical and does not allow us to do our job and contribute in a revenue-positive way to South Africa.
According to the CEO of the Southern Africa Tourism Services Association, David Frost, there is “a disconnect” between Ramaphosa’s announcement and intentions, and the practical implementation of this.
“Opening of borders is the moment we have all been waiting for, but the way in which the government proposes to reopen is impractical and does not allow us to do our job and contribute in a revenue-positive way to South Africa,” he says.
According to Frost, there is no transparency in terms of the criteria being used to evaluate high-risk countries, and practical implications and impediments have not been considered.
For instance, while leisure travellers from high-risk countries will not be permitted entry, business travellers from the same countries with scarce and critical skills, including diplomats, repatriated persons, investors and people participating in professional sporting and cultural events, will be permitted entry, obviously subject to the health protocol screenings.
The CEO of the Tourism Business Council of South Africa, Tshifhiwa Tshivhengwa, adds that there is no public health reason to ban travellers from any country, provided the testing regime and protocols are adhered to.
In addition, the government’s plan to change the list of high-risk countries every two weeks is wholly impractical, he says.
“Inbound international travellers need time to plan their travel. Changing the list of unbanned countries every two weeks introduces a layer of complexity and uncertainty that will lead to erratic booking cycles and confusion among travellers.”
Zuks Ramasia, the CEO of the Board of Airline Representatives of SA (Barsa), was suitably diplomatic when she noted: “Barsa is pleased with the latest updates from government, which alleviate pressure as stringent restrictions are lifted. Affected airlines are now in the process of reinstating schedules to the benefit of our ailing economy, which needs all hands on deck.” DM/BM