What you need to know:
- The directive comes on the backdrop of increasing importation of deadly variants of the coronavirus, the looming threat of a third wave and cases of fake Covid-19 certificates.
Regardless of the international traveller’s vaccination status or indications in their Covid-19 test certificate, the government has vowed to subject each passenger to a mandatory Covid-19 test upon arrival in the country, effective tomorrow.
The directive comes on the backdrop of increasing importation of deadly variants of the coronavirus, the looming threat of a third wave and cases of fake Covid-19 certificates.
Travellers were previously required to show negative coronavirus test results done 72 hours prior to departure or upon arriving at the point of entry, including Entebbe International Airport.
But frequent travellers and tour operators have tagged the directive as an unnecessary burden and a ploy to benefit private companies that have been selected by the Ministry of Health to do the PCR Covid-19 tests.
They asked the government to respect the negative Covid-19 test certificate that travellers present and excuse those who are fully vaccinated because they present less risk.
The Association of Uganda Tour Operators (AUTO) said the directive will have devastating effects on the tourism sector, which has been disproportionately hit by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Some policy analysts have also warned that mandatory testing might deter people from flying to the country unless for essential reasons and spark off counter measures by other countries.
Tourist players speak out
Ms Nancy Okwong, the AUTO spokesperson, told Daily Monitor yesterday the mandatory testing is an inconvenience that would cause a further decline in the number of tourists coming into the country.
“Others [tourists] find it an inconvenience because some are already fully vaccinated [against Covid] and so they feel it is not necessary to undergo the PCR test again [upon arrival],” she added.
Ms Okwong said their members have teamed up to make sure the ministry reverses the plan.
“We are signing a petition to see that those who are fully vaccinated and don’t have symptoms shouldn’t be subjected to mandatory PCR test upon arrival. Many of the tour operators are affected by that,” she said.
Ms Anna Merrifield, the European Union Deputy Head of Delegation, in a tweet on August 21, said: “This testing on departure, testing on arrival, testing on departure is draining and ultimately only benefits the private labs, which are making a fortune. ..”
“…In Uganda they are also very expensive in comparison to average earnings. How long will we be testing for, also people who are 2 x vaccinated [fully vaccinated], or recovered and could test positive for months? If you want to revive tourism, this won’t work,” she added.
Mr Paul Kasami, the tour sales manager at Great Lakes Safaris, said at testing centres at Entebbe International Airport are always characterised by “crowding,” and “slow” processes, which demotivate travellers.
The tour sales manager asked the ministry to change the new plan of mandatory testing upon arrival.
“Many of the reactions we are getting are not good. The issue also has to do with the expenditure. Most of these clients have moved their trips from 2020 to 2021 [because of Covid disruptions]. So this is like an additional cost they are facing,” Mr Kasami said.
The travellers should have PCR negative tests from their country of origin, be fully vaccinated, and once they come here, they have to do another test at $65 upon arrival. And when they come back from the safari, they still have to do another one as they depart.
“I don’t know what the ministry plans to achieve from this. Something is not right,” he said.
However, Ms Margaret Muhanga, the State minister for Primary Health Care, while reacting to the proposal by the tour operators and frequent travellers, said they will not take chances.
“They [tour operators and travellers] want to go for money, not for life. Life should be first. We have seen that the variants have been entering and most of them through the airport,” Ms Muhanga said.
Ms Muhanga said a serious traveller can’t complain about $65 for the Covid-19 test.
“Someone who has paid for an air ticket and can stay in a hotel where they will be paying $300 per night, but is not willing to pay $65 for Covid test is an unserious traveller,” the minister said.
“Vaccination doesn’t mean you don’t have Covid-19. Even people who are fully vaccinated are getting infected. Vaccination only protects you from falling sick. We have to do this to prevent importation of new variants of the coronavirus,” she added.
Private laboratories benefitting?
Some Ugandans and legislators such as Kween County MP Abdi Fadhil Chemaswet have asked the ministry to review the “high” cost of mandatory Covid-19 PCR test by private laboratories.
“The private laboratories at Entebbe airport are charging $65 to conduct the test; they are taken to some beach, not even at the airport,” Mr Chemaswet said.
The mandatory Covid-19 test means the private laboratories will experience a sharp increase in profits through the diagnosis. Previously, the laboratories were benefitting through testing all travellers before they leave the country.
For instance in June, the government statistics indicate that up to 40,137 people left the country through Entebbe International Airport. This means at the rate of $65 per test, the laboratories amassed $2,608,905 (Shs9.2b).
That same month, 29,209 arrivals were registered at the airport. This means that once mandatory testing starts for those arriving, the private laboratories will earn $1,898,585 (Shs6.7b) for the tests.
The Covid tests at the airport are being done by private laboratories, Safari Laboratory, Test & Fly and Case Hospital.
Test and Fly Laboratory is under Microheam Scientifics and Medical Supplies Ltd, a company owned by Dr Bruce Kirenga, the director of Makerere University Lung Institute. Other owners are Mr Patience Niwagaba, Mr Cedric Akwesigye and Ms Monica Komujuni.
Case Hospital was registered in the country on July 2, 2003 by Dr Abdul Kato Sebbaale owned 50 out of the 100 shares. Other shares were owned by Ms Florence Sebbaale, Mr Daudi Sebbaale, Mr Donald Daniel Sebbaale, Mr Davida sebbaale and SKA Limited, each having 10 shares.
The hospital ownership had major changes in 2018 where Ms Florence Sebbaale left and SKA Limited bought 40 shares. Dr Abdul Kato Sebbaale was left with 20 shares, while the other four - Mr Daudi Sebbaale, Mr Donald sebbaale, Mr Davida Sebbaale and Mr Davis Sebbaale - each had 10 shares.
Dr Henry Kyobe, the National Incident Manager for Covid-19, said the ministry has a clear criteria for selecting laboratories.
He said the minister of Health, Dr Jane Ruth Aceng, held a meeting with private laboratories on Friday to identify laboratories that will provide testing services at Entebbe airport. He said there are plans to make sure testing at all the 53 points of entry is as fast as possible to minimise delays.
Apart from the willingness of the laboratories, the ministry has criteria to select the labs that will test, such as their capacity, how fast they can channel out the results to ensure there is no delay at the airport,” he added.
He said the Ministry will make final pronouncement on the implementation of the mandatory testing at the course of this week, especially on more laboratories that will test for Covid-19 at the points of entry.
Mr Emmanuel Ainebyoona, the Ministry of Health spokesperson, said the government testing laboratories are handling the large volumes coming out of alerts and contacts.
“The government labs are concentrating on testing samples of symptomatic cases and those coming from the health facilities to enable treatment of those who test positive,” he said.
What travellers will go through
Mr Vianney Lugya, the manager for public relations at the Uganda Civil Aviation Authority, said after arrival, the travellers will be taken to Penial Beach Hotel where testing happens.
“When passengers arrive, they are transported in tourist busses from the airport to Penial Beach where the sample is collected from,” he said.
The customer care officer at Test and Fly, who identified herself as Charity, said a traveller “takes about 4 hours or less to get” the results. “We are charging $65 per test,” she said.
Mr Lugya said after the tests are done, the powers to clear the travel are given to authorities of the testing laboratories that are directly supervised by the Ministry of Health.
Mr Emmanuel Ainebyoona said those who test positive will be evacuated and taken to the Ministry of Health designated isolation centres such as Namboole stadium.
Accreddited Covid-19 testing labs
Ernest Central Public Health Laboratory
Uganda Virus Research Institute (UVRI)
Joint Clinical Research Centre (JCRC)
Infectious Disease Institute (IDI)
Rakai Health Sciences Program
MBN clinical Laboratories –private
Medipal International Hospital –private
Test and Fly Laboratory –private
Case Hospital Laboratories –private
ANCA Biotech Laboratories –private
City Medicals Laboratories –private
Safari Laboratories –private
Lancet Laboratories –private
ATCG Laboratories –private
MAIA Group Laboratories –private
Same Day Covid-19 Laboratory –private
MSF-Epi-Center Lab –private –Mbarara
Makerere Univ Molecular Laboratories
Mild May Laboratory
Tororo Mobile Laboratory
Mutukula Mobile Laboratory
Adjumani Mobile Laboratory
Uganda Cancer Institute Laboratory
Gulu University Biomedical Centre