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Air New Zealand denies coronavirus claims

Air New Zealand has denied claims it allowed non-compliant passengers to board a plane to Samoa earlier this month, after the issue was raised in an internal Government report on Monday.

The report, obtained by the Samoa Observer, states the 18 September 2020 flight carried several passengers without the valid medical clearances required to enter Samoa, and recommends that Air New Zealand “thoroughly check” documentation.

In an email, a spokesperson said the airline and the Samoan Government have been working to ensure passenger entry requirements are met for all repatriated citizens and residents.

“Air New Zealand takes its responsibilities very seriously to ensure the safe passage of customers into Samoa and we have been working closely with the Samoan Government to ensure all entry requirements are met,” the spokesperson said.

“All passengers on NZ990 were deemed compliant for arrival into Samoa having satisfied the requirements of the Samoan Government.”

The official ‘COVID-19 Situation Report No.95,’ dated 28 September and provided to this newspaper by a source connected to the Disaster Advisory Committee reports “many” passengers had invalid medical reports or out-of-date COVID-19 test results.

“Many [passengers’] COVID tests were done more than 3 days (invalid) prior [to] arrival as stated on Travel Advisory”, the document states.  “Only a few passengers did not present negative COVID test results and Medical clearance reports upon arrival.”

The report does say that the flight “complied with Samoa’s current travel restrictions and entry requirements for the COVID-19.”

But as well as the testing issues, the report highlights several other issues with arriving passengers. 

It says non-Samoan citizens from the United States, New Zealand and Australia, who should have received their travel approval from the Ministry of Health or the Government of Samoa, instead only had endorsement letters from Samoan Consulate offices in Auckland.

In addition, travelers from “high-risk” countries that had received the correct approvals by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade had not, however, stopped for 28 days in New Zealand after leaving their countries.

Under a section titled ‘Recommendations,’ the report urges both Air New Zealand and the Samoan Consulate to check passenger’s medical reports and test result dates more closely, and to “align” with Government requirements.

On Wednesday, Air New Zealand insisted it has been doing exactly that.

“Multiple teams in New Zealand and Samoa work closely to ensure that repatriation flights to Samoa meet all requirements,” the spokesperson said. “We are proud to have returned home 2,055 Samoan residents safely since May. This work could not have been achieved without the support and guidance from the Samoan Government.”

Samoa’s offices in Auckland also denied any wrongdoing on their part.

Approached on Tuesday, Consul General Faolotoi Reupena Pogi for Samoa in New Zealand said his office did not approve for non-Samoans to travel.

“We did not issue any letters of endorsement to travel for non-Samoan citizens in the last flight,” he said in an email.

The Samoa Observer approached the Disaster Advisory Committee, the National Emergency Operations Centre, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Ministry of Health and the Government Press Secretariat via email shortly after 1.30pm on Tuesday.

To date none have responded.  The Friday 18 flight had 293 passengers, who are all undergoing mandatory 14 days quarantine, and were processed by staff wearing personal protective equipment on arrival. 

According to the report, 18 of those passengers were elderly and in wheelchairs but not accompanied by an able-bodied adult, which apparently slowed down the screening process.

On Monday, Samoa’s official travel advice was amended and redistributed to try and deal with some of these issues.

It says COVID-19 negative test results must be from tests completed “within” three days of travel to Samoa, and that the results and attached medical report must be presented in a hard copy form to staff.

It also says that passengers who are elderly with chronic medical conditions or special needs must be accompanied by an adult relative for both the flight and the quarantine period.

In this week’s edition of the Government newspaper the Savali, the new travel advisory was shared under the headline ‘Returning Samoan Residents: TAKE NOTE.’

“The advisory follows reports received that a high number of returning Samoans booked on the last repatriation flight were denied boarding for failure to meet all the mandated health regulations,” Savali reports. 

Last week, Prime Minister Tuilaepa Dr. Sailele Malielegaoi was reported in Radio New Zealand as saying that 50 people were denied their booked seats on the Friday 18 flight because they had incorrect medical documentation.

Some passengers had no required health test evidence while others had incomplete documentation, such as missing signatures from health professionals. 

“This means they are not worried by the pandemic, but it is nothing for anyone to play around with,” he said, adding that it meant 50 seats on the flight were wasted. 

The Air New Zealand spokesperson said they were unable to divulge how many, if any, people were denied boarding on Friday 18 September. 

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