We need to start now to expand testing capacity to open our airports

We have previously explained why we will need in future to test all international arrivals for Covid-19 virus, as well as quarantining them for 14 days. 

The GMOA has called on the President to do this in a letter today. We endorse this call as the most rational option based on the scientific evidence we have right now and the experience in Sri Lanka of what happened in early March.

The incubation period for Covid-19 can be more than  two weeks. Many infected people never develop symptoms. A two week quarantine period is not enough. We have already had infected cases getting through quarantine, and the numbers will be much bigger if we open up our ports on a permanent basis. Combining quarantine with PCR testing provides a much more effective method of catching infected travelers.

To build on our success in keeping Covid-19 cases to a low level, we need high quality border controls so that we can maintain normal life and economic activity in the island after we lift lockdown. In simple terms. the exit strategy from lockdown requires keeping the import of Covid-19 virus as near to zero as possible.

China, Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore all test international arrivals. China has added temperature checks on passengers at their departure airports, and Singapore has set aside additional buildings at the airport to hold passengers who are waiting to be tested. We will need a mix of testing, quarantine and self-isolation covering all arrivals, with the details being adjusted over time as we have better understanding of the risk posed by each arrival.

We cannot delay acton on this till later. We need to start now to obtain the equipment to carry out RT-PCR tests on arrivals in May or whenever we re-open our ports. Even during the height of the JVP terror in 1989, we had over 1,000 arrivals each day, which had increased to over 10,000 a day just before Corona virus hit. Whilst the global pandemic rages, there will be little tourism. But we have lakhs of Sri Lankans who live and work overseas, who need to return at some point, and some international travel is essential for normal life and business to carry-on. 

Today, Sri Lanka does not have the capacity to do more than 1,500 tests a day. This capacity is needed just for our internal needs. We will need to add new capacity to do PCR-testing at the airport. Given the possible need to test some arrivals more than once, we will need to buy new, high capacity machines able to do at least 1,000 PCR tests a day if we are to open the airport, and then expand this later. The authorities also need to plan how they will manage arrivals at the airport, avoiding the chaos that happened in early March when health screening was stepped up, as well as put in place sufficient quarantine capacity near the airport. Passengers who are only to be tested will also need short-term quarantine facilities whilst they await their test results.

This will cost us money. As we have pointed out before, it is still cheaper to do the testing than not do it. But as the government is desperately short of cash, I propose that it imposes a temporary COVID arrival fee of USD 100 on all future ticket sales. This will raise the price of airfares to Sri Lanka, but nobody right now will use price to choose their travel destination. And being a virus-free country will be a much more important competitive factor when global tourism restarts.