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Ulu admits border safety breaches

Chair of the National Emergency Operations Committee (N.E.O.C.), Ulu Bismarck Crawley, has acknowledged failings in Samoa’s COVID-19 border protection policy in a recent repatriation flight. 

The Samoa Observer exclusively revealed a Government ‘Situation Report’ that found an 18 September Auckland-Apia repatriation flight carried passengers missing medical reports, out of date tests, or who had incorrect travel approvals. 

“We acknowledge that the information referenced in the article was the situation at the time of the report,” Ulu said in a letter sent to the Samoa Observer on Wednesday evening.

Ulu acknowledged problems with border control and said it was critical everyone followed the rules. 

But the man in charge of Samoa’s response to the global pandemic says his committee is “giving its all” to protect the nation’s borders. 

“Uncertainties have been evident in all efforts for necessary preparations causing anxiety, stress and insecurity,” he said. 

“But the opportunity is critical for us all to reinforce and encourage everyone to consider all safety measures as per our travel advisory.”

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 medical approvals that did not meet requirements. 

“Many [passengers’ COVID-19] 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-19] test results and Medical clearance reports upon arrival.”

Ulu added six other passengers who were meant to fly to Samoa on Friday did not. Those who did not include four whose medical reports were non-compliant and two who did not make it to the airport.

A further 25 passengers returning from seasonal work had incorrect medical reports but a physician was able to verify them shortly before they boarded the plane.

(Last week Prime Minister Tuilaepa Dr. Sailele Malielegaoi said 50 people were denied boarding on Friday 18 September.)

Ulu, who is also the head of the Disaster Advisory Committee, acknowledged both Air New Zealand and the Office of the Consul General in Auckland for their efforts in the repatriation process. 

“Our committee and everyone’s involvement are giving it their all for a [COVID-19]-free Samoa,” he said. 

“It is encouraging to note the wider concern for Samoa’s safety which is fundamental to all efforts by public, private, communities and [non-Government organisation] including many individuals the committee were able to engage with and are collectively working hard to keep Samoa [COVID-19] free.”

Samoa’s Travel Advice and Information Paper, signed by the Director-General of the Health Ministry, Leausa Dr. Take Naseri, was amended on Monday to specifically emphasise negative COVID-19 tests must be completed “within” three days of travel.

In the copy distributed through the Government Press Secretariat, the advisory reads, in red text: “failure can result in no board or entry denied and [passengers] will be returned to [their] last port where you boarded the flight to Samoa.”

The situation report also 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.

“Non-Samoan citizens with foreign passports (US, Australia, New Zealand) were permitted to travel with [the] endorsed letter provided by the Samoa Counsellors Office in Auckland without seeking advice from the Samoa Government or the Ministry of Health,” the report states. 

Travellers 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, the report states.

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.

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.

On Wednesday an Air New Zealand spokesperson said all the passengers who boarded the flight were “deemed compliant” for travel.

“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.

“Multiple teams in New Zealand and Samoa work closely to ensure that repatriation flights to Samoa meet all requirements.

“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.”

To date, Samoa has processed 1,929 COVID-19 tests locally and returned no confirmed cases of COVID-19. 

The letter from Ulu is reprinted in full below:

30 September 2020

Dear Observer,

“Arriving passengers had “invalid” coronavirus test"

Thank you for your article on the Observer of September 30 2020 as referenced above regarding [the] repatriation flight of September 18 2020.   It is encouraging to note the wider concern for Samoa safety which is fundamental to all efforts by public, private, communities and [non-Government organisations] including many individuals the committee were able to engage with and are collectively working hard to keep Samoa [COVID-19] free.

We acknowledge that the information referenced in the article was the situation at the time of the report. Surely, uncertainties have been evident in all efforts for necessary preparations causing anxiety, stress and insecurity but the opportunity is critical for us all to reinforce and encourage everyone to consider all safety measures as per our travel advisory.

To confirm, the flight had 293 passengers and one infant. Six passengers were not able to board- Four passengers were declined due to non-compliance with medical certificates and two did not show up. We are happy to confirm that the final information relayed, confirmed that 25 [Recognised Seasonal Employers] workers that were held up due to non-compliant medical certificates were able get their [COVID-19] tests verified by a physician before they boarded the flight. We acknowledge the support of Air NZ and their hard working staff in ensuring our medical requirements are met. Such is accorded the same for the staff of the Office of the Consul General who do not and have not issued any letters of authority for entry into Samoa of any passenger.

Thank you again for raising good awareness and we confirmed that our committee and everyone's involvement are giving it their all for a [COVID-19]-free Samoa.

God Bless and Faafetai,

N.E.O.C.

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