UK stops visa for Nigerians, experts ask FG to reciprocate

The British High Commission, yesterday, said it would “pause making decisions” on visitor visa applications from all red list countries, which includes Nigeria

Nigeria UK

The decision was announced in a statement issued by the commission yesterday. The development comes hours after the United Kingdom (UK) added Nigeria to its travel red list.

“To support the UK government’s aim to protect public health from COVID-19 and associated variants of concern (VOC), UK Visas & Immigration (UKVI) will pause making decisions on visitor visa applications in all red list countries, including Nigeria, until travel restrictions are lifted,” the statement reads.

Visit visas cover travel to UK for tourism, visiting family and friends, undertaking short-term business activities, undertaking short-term studies (under six months), taking part in research or exchange programmes as an academic and for medical reasons.

“If you apply for a visit visa in a red list country and you meet the UK immigration rules, your application will be paused. You will not be able to request a refund of your visa fee once you have given your biometrics at a Visa Application Centre. If you already hold a valid visa and are intending to travel to England as a visitor from a red list country, you will not be allowed to enter,” the statement added.

The UK, earlier on Saturday night, had announced the imposition of a travel restriction on Nigerian citizens following an increase in the number of cases of the Omicron variant across the world. This was disclosed by UK’s Secretary of State for Health, Sajid Javid, via his official Twitter account.

BRITISH Airways, yesterday, cancelled its flight from Murtala Muhammed International Airport (MMIA) Lagos into London Heathrow in the United Kingdom, citing operational reasons. The airline also did not operate its inbound flight from London into Lagos.

Sources at the airport linked it to the implementation of the travel ban imposed on countries considered red flags to the new Omicron variant of COVID-19.

Many passengers who turned up at the airport for check-in procedures were disappointed with counters for British Airways scanty. Some workers who were at the counters informed the distraught passengers that the flight into the United Kingdom was rescheduled for early hours of Monday.

Some passengers, who sought clarifications for the sudden twist of events, were handed flyers signed by the Customer Service Duty Manager of the British Airways Nwanorue Alexander.

It reads: “We would like to inform you of a change to the departure time of your flight BA 074 on December 5, 2021 to London Heathrow. We have had to make this adjustment to our schedule due to operational reasons. Your flight will now depart Lagos next day. We are sorry for the change to your travel plans, please be rest assured that we will do everything we can to help.”

An immigration source at the airport attributed the glitch in travel to the new rules set by the United Kingdom government for admitting passengers into the country.

UK is the third country to impose a travel ban on Nigeria after Indonesia and Canada. Javid stated that only UK and Irish citizens travelling from Nigeria would be allowed into the country after quarantining for a certain period.

He tweeted: “In light of the most recent data, we are taking further action to slow the incursion of the Omicron variant. From 4:00a.m. on Monday, only UK/Irish citizens and residents travelling from Nigeria will be allowed entry and must isolate in a managed quarantine facility.

“And from 4:00a.m. on Tuesday, anyone travelling to the UK from countries not on the Red List will be required to take a pre-departure test, regardless of their vaccination status.”

British citizens and residents travelling from Nigeria to the UK are expected to spend £2,285 on hotel quarantine for 10 days.

“This will mean that only UK residents or citizens of the UK can enter the UK from Nigeria from that point onwards, and they would have to quarantine in one of the relevant hotels,” Javid, stated.

There is an “additional rate for one adult (or child over 11)” at £1,430, while an “additional rate for a child aged 5 to 11” is £325.

Quarantine costs do not apply to children under five. However, the UK says it will consider an arrangement for persons who have financial challenges.

But a petition by Dalia Elbeih, a UK citizen, to the British parliament seeking to allow fully vaccinated people coming from red list countries to isolate at home had exceeded 78,000 signatures as at yesterday.

“The hotel quarantine is very expensive and non affordable. I believe that there should be an exemption for fully vaccinated people and who had a negative PCR to isolate at their place of residence,” the petition reads.

The petition, which the UK government had responded to on July 6, has a deadline of December 10 and will be considered for debate in the UK parliament if it reaches 100,000 signatures.

This is coming as analysis of data obtained from the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) revealed a 76 per cent spike in the number of positive COVID-19 cases across the country in 24 hours.

In UK, cases of the new Omicron variant have risen by more than 50 per cent in one day. On Sunday, 86 cases of the new variant were recorded, bringing the UK’s total to 246.

However, a government scientific advisor said it is “too late to make a material difference to a potential wave of omicron cases.”

Dr Katherine Henderson, president of the Royal College of Emergency Medicine, said: “If Omicron is here in the UK, and it certainly is, if there’s community transmission in the UK, and it certainly looks that way, then it’s that community transmission that will drive a next wave. I think the travel restrictions came too late.”

IN a related development, the Canadian government has said it will not accept results of molecular COVID tests done in Nigeria and nine other African countries. The other affected countries are Botswana, Egypt, Eswatini, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe.

In the quick facts section of its travel advisory, the country said Canadian citizens, permanent residents, and people with status under the Indian Act who have been in the affected countries are allowed entry into Canada.

It, however, added that they would be required to obtain proof of a valid negative COVID test from a third country. This implies that such travellers would need an in-transit PCR test result for entry into Canada.

“Canadian citizens, permanent residents, and people with status under the Indian Act who have been in these countries—Botswana, Egypt, Eswatini, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Nigeria, South Africa, and Zimbabwe—in the 14 days before travel to Canada will be required to: Obtain, within 72 hours of departure, a valid negative COVID-19 molecular test in a third country before continuing their journey to Canada,” the statement reads.

Travellers from the aforementioned countries will also be expected to “complete testing upon arrival to Canada, regardless of their vaccination status or having had a previous history of testing positive for COVID-19.”

They will also be “required to complete a test on Day 8 after arrival and quarantine for 14 days”, while “those arriving by air will be required to stay in a designated quarantine facility while they await their arrival test result.

“They will be permitted onward travel once they have received a negative arrival test result. Those arriving by land may be allowed to proceed directly to their suitable quarantine location,” the statement reads. The new protocol came into effect on December 1.

MEANWHILE, Dr Jonathan Obaje, a Nigerian scientist based in Singapore, said since African Omicron discovery, global clinic data has confirmed that the variant is less lethal than earlier variants. Obaje, a former Vice President of Nigeria in Diaspora, Singapore, said this on Sunday in a telephone interview with the News Agency of Nigeria (NAN).

According to him, this is the second week of the ‘African Omicron’ discovery, so far clinic data from across the globe have confirmed that Omicron variant of COVID-19 virus is less lethal than the Delta and other earlier variants.

Obaje said: “We must remember that the severe acute respiratory syndrome Covid virus (SARS-COV) of 2002 was eventually weakened to common flu by our innate immunities.

“The human immunity system is the most powerful and most sophisticated defence system that has sustained humanity for ages. Advances in science and technology are great, but they have their own limitations.

“We now have enough scientific capabilities to confirm in one more week, whether or not Omicron variant is less lethal than Delta variant. So far, many reports from across the globe indicate so.

“In event that Omicron is confirmed less lethal, scientifical expedient action thereafter will be for everyone to open gates, for Omicron to quickly spread and become dominant globally. Omicron will then become the new harmless COVID-19 virus.

“Such will be the best way to save humanity from further COVID-19 calamity; current negative media hype, panic and political measures are unscientific, we are most likely going to have ‘Merry Christmas with the African Omicron.’”

Reacting to the UK ban, former President, Nigerian Medical Association (NMA), Dr. Omede Idris, told The Guardian: “All these are unnecessary and uncalled for. Precautionary travel guideline of test and vaccination and non-pharmaceutical intervention are better alternative.”

To National Chairman, Association of Community Pharmacists of Nigeria (ACPN), Adewale Aderemi Oladigbolu, “this is a call to action to Nigeria government, COVID-19 vaccination coverage in Nigeria is abysmal and we need to demolish all policies of government that limits access to vaccines. We should realise the UK ‘s ban on flights is a protective measure for her citizens in view of high virulence and the exponential rise in COVID-19 cases in some countries of the world. Nigeria agencies and parastatals must love Nigerians well enough to take similar measures to protect her citizens.”

THE initial optimism of a bumper harvest in the air travel sector this festive season is fast waning. Besides the Omicron variant aiding the initiation of flight bans and restrictions across the globe, the in-country foreign exchange crisis is unsettling airfare and further pushing it beyond the reach of potential holiday travellers.

While most Nigerian holidaymakers may not be able to travel overseas, at least 8,000 citizens that are due for Nigeria this December have been caught in the web of UK’s restrictions on Nigerians entering the UK, beginning from today.

Apparently miffed by the latest restriction, aviation stakeholders have urged the Federal Government to reciprocate with a similar gesture to check reckless restrictions, and protect Nigerian travellers from abuse and aero-politics.

Though the ban is for Nigerians bound for the UK, it does not exempt over 8,000 Nigerian travellers that have bought air tickets to visit Nigeria during festive period, as the restriction would affect their re-entry into Britain after holidays.

Nigerians itching to travel out are as well agonising over the disruption as international airfares are also beginning to spike, though partly due to challenges of repatriating stuck funds and fluctuations on the Rates of Exchange (RoE) that is deployed by foreign airlines.

A market survey by The Guardian, yesterday, showed that airfares had gone up some notches, with some routes posting an average of 20 per cent spike just as the RoE rose from N411 to N454/$ on the sales platform. In addition to the spike is the costs of additional COVID-19 test – now five per round-trip – which air travellers have to bear, subject to availability of flight.

For instance, Lagos-Paris-Lagos Economy Class ticket that sold for an average of N200,000 pre-COVID-19, N350,000 early this year, between N480,000 to N650,000 during summer has risen to between N500,000 and N700,000 depending on the airline of choice. Business Class ticket was at weekend sold for between N2.6 to N3.2 million, compared to between N1.2 to N1.5 million previously offered.

Lagos-Atlanta-Lagos that formerly sold for an average of N260,000 Economy, between N600,000 and N850,000 at summer, has gone as high as N900,000 depending on airline of choice and where the booking takes place. Business Class on the U.S. route sells for between N3.2 million and N3.6 million per traveller.

Travel consultant, Sunday Olumegbon, said the foreign carriers are beginning to push the burden of the FX liquidity crisis on the air travellers.

“I’m aware that most of them are still having difficulties repatriating funds. They sell in Naira, as mandated by the rules, but the Central Bank has no dollar equivalent to help them repatriate the funds to their headquarters. Given the delay, they have jacked up RoE to N454/$; all on the consumers.

“The spike does not factor in the cost of COVID-19 tests that is now five in number and at an average cost of N250,000 extra, per trip. So, to travel to Europe, an average traveller must cough out about N1 million. That is tough and many people will have to stay on the ground. I only feel sorry for all those that have bought tickets and have one emergency or other to attend at this difficult period,” Olumegbon said.

Indeed, foreign airlines operating in and out of Nigeria took their protest to the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) over difficulties in repatriating accumulated funds, in excess of $800 million (N328.8 billion) about a month ago.

The apex bank had pledged to avail FX to repatriate about 70 per cent of the fund. Fillers hinted that the stuck fund had continued to pile up in the last two weeks, with airlines taking extra measures on airfares that are sold in Nigeria.

For instance, airlines have withdrawn all promo fares, stopped travel agencies from selling tickets that do not originate from Nigeria, while offering tickets but with very stringent conditions.

President of the National Association of Nigerian Travel Agencies (NANTA), Susan Akporiaye, said foreign airlines having funds stuck in Nigeria is not in the interest of all parties.

Akporiaye noted that the airlines have raised airfares, though the rate of exchange has gone up.

“The fare that used to be $1500 two years ago is still the same price, but the RoE that was N260 is now over N411/$. The airlines have nothing to gain by increasing fares. This is not the best time to increase airfares, but to break-even from full flight services.

“It is well known that Africa is a ready market and it is the loss of any airline that does not want to do business with us. We should really not beat ourselves over anything the Western world is pushing at us. It is their market to lose,” Akporiaye said.

Chairman of the Airline Passenger Joint Committee of the International Air Transport Association (IATA), Bankole Bernard, said the UK ban on Nigeria was rather harsh, unnecessary and unfair to the country.

Bernard said: “What is the basis of that ban in a country that has low prevalence of the new variant? I think it is the turn of Nigeria to reciprocate; place the UK on our red list and ban both British Airways and Virgin Atlantic from coming to Nigeria. Look at the picture, the UK banned Nigerians from coming in, yet their airlines are still coming to Nigeria. It is all about the market and to make money. It is not fair. It is time we started protecting our people as well,” Bernard said.

Indeed, airlines and travel agencies had projected a significant increase in the number of travellers over the Christmas period, as lockdowns began to ease, and several international travel routes reopened. The worry was the cost of fuel, travel restrictions and even depleted workforce on some of the airlines.

With most airlines no longer receiving government financial support, which helped many firms keep afloat during the worst of the pandemic, companies are having to employ and pay more pilots, flight attendants, travel agents, and airport staff to meet the growing demand on old and new routes.

Last week, American carrier United Airlines made a return on the Lagos-Washington route after a six years hiatus. Yesterday, it was the turn of Emirates Airlines to reconnect Dubai to Lagos and Abuja after a nine-month layover. Struggling South African Airways is also revving up to return to Lagos-Johannesburg route on December 12.

Least anticipated was another disruption by COVID-19 that has become a seasonal plague and most ferocious during the winter season. And since South Africa announced the discovery of the Omicron variant a fortnight ago, the virus has shown up in over 24 countries. More than 32 countries have closed borders to flights from some nations, especially from the southern Africa region, and others have imposed stricter measures to curb the spread of the Omicron variant.

IATA’s Director General, Willie Walsh, said October’s traffic performance reinforced the fact that people would travel when they are permitted to.

“Unfortunately, government responses to the emergence of the Omicron variant are putting at risk the global connectivity it has taken so long to rebuild,” Walsh said.