The government of Rwanda has demanded for clarifications on the motivations behind the recent arbitrary decision of the UK government to ban non-UK citizens who have been in or transited through Rwanda.
The UK government announced, on January 28, that direct flights from Rwanda have been banned, together with a few other countries.
“This decision was taken due to the risk of new variants rather than any reflection on Rwanda‘s strong handling to tackle the Covid-19 pandemic,” the British High Commission in Rwanda said.
The High Commission’s statement came after the Welwyn Hatfield MP and Secretary of State for Transport, Grant Shapps, announced that the United Arab Emirates, Burundi, and Rwanda all had been added to the UK’s red list.
On Saturday evening, January 30, Rwanda issued a statement saying that it has “taken note of the UK Government announcement…”.
“Considering the list of countries in the region affected and not affected by the ban, the sparse information communicated to Rwanda does not stand up to scientific scrutiny,” the Rwandan government insisted.
Rwanda’s overall response to COVID-19 including testing, surveillance, contact tracing, containment, treatment, and reporting has been consistent, transparent, and corroborated by third-party entities.
Rwanda is also one of the few countries that require a PCR COVID-19 test for all departing passengers and all those in transit.
Notably, the government said that “Rwanda did not join in the widespread bans on travellers from the UK in December 2020 over the variant discovered in parts of the UK.”
Meanwhile, the ban has attracted sharp criticism from the public particularly via social media, accusing the UK government of politicizing COVID-19 “and eroding trust in its commitment to science-based decision-making. No variants have been detected in Rwanda, in contrast to the UK itself,” said Mauro De Lorenzo in a tweet, adding that Grant Shapps’ statements were “Highly irresponsible.”
The British High Commission told Taarifa on Friday evening that the decision was based on data collected from “various sources”.
When pressed to share some of the data that was based on to come to the banning conclusion, the High Commission’s Spokesperson, Bhavik Shah, did not share any source.
Also, when asked if the data used to inform the UK’s decision had come from Rwanda Biomedical Center (RBC) and Rwanda’s Ministry of Health, could not confirm nor decline.
Context, and diplomatic reporting
Taarifa consulted how foreign missions report on pandemics and risky areas or regions.
Apparently, classification as a risk area is the result of a joint analysis and decision-making process by the home Ministry of Health, the Foreign Office, and the Ministry of the Interior or Local Government.
The classification as a risk area is based on a two-step assessment. This might vary on a country, but subtly.
Initially, it is determined in which countries or regions there were more than 50 new
infections per 100,000 inhabitants in the last seven days. And in this case, Rwanda hasn’t reached that level. In fact, Rwanda’s total positive cases are 0.017% in the past year.
In a second step, qualitative and other criteria are used to determine whether or not
countries and regions that might nominally fall below the above threshold could nonetheless still present an increased risk of infection.
The same applies for countries or regions that might nominally fall above this threshold but do not nonetheless present an increased risk.
Since the 44th calendar week, the maps of the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), broken down by region, have been taken into account for the EU Member States (for the UK, refer to BREXIT, but the format still counts).
The map contains data on the 14-day notification rate, testing rate, and test positivity.
As part of the second step, the Foreign Office and, where relevant, the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of the Interior or Local Government, provide qualitative reports based on reporting by the local diplomatic representations, which also covers measures taken to halt the spread of the coronavirus pandemic.
Key factors in this assessment are above all the numbers of infection and the type of outbreak (local or wide-spread), testing capacities and the number of tests carried out per capita as well as the measures taken to contain the spread of infection (hygiene regulations, contact tracing, etc.).
Similarly, this also takes into account individual countries where reliable information may not be readily available.
UK’s context on the ban
Rwanda is not on any other country’s red list due to its stance on COVID-19 and tough measures to contain the virus. In fact, Rwanda has been conducting genetic sequencing. The results are uploaded on http://gisaid.org, a transparent international platform for sharing virus data:
Taarifa insisted that the High Commission in Kigali should explain thus, with scientific evidence for suspecting a new COVID-19 variant beyond just a statement announcing the ban.
The Spokesperson, Bhavik Shah, failed to explain. He pleaded that the decision was beyond his pay grade, but he confirmed that the High Commission was responsible for providing reports and advising the UK on Rwanda.
Indeed foreign missions produce reports, which include scientific data, assessment and their views. For most countries, these reports are public.
For example, Germany. Their report is shared publicly on the website of Robert Koch Institute
Meanwhile, the UK is on the list of riskiest countries in the world at the moment and currently considered as an area of a variant of concern. High incidence areas are risk areas with particularly high numbers of cases.