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Health Visa providers warned on testing end

• Talks over issue to continue this week

• DPM: COVID ‘fourth wave’ still concern

• Payment firm: ‘Always short-term project’

By NEIL HARTNELL

Tribune Business Editor

nhartnell@tribunemedia.net

Health Travel Visa providers have been informed that the scheme’s COVID testing component will soon end, it was confirmed yesterday, amid assertions they have been given two months’ warning by the Government.

Well-placed Tribune Business contacts, speaking on condition of anonymity, said several providers had in early March been given 60 days’ notice that both testing and their role were due to end, placing the date by which this will take effect around May 9. However, others suggested the timing was not yet set with talks continuing over the issue amid concerns that COVID-19 could yet resurface via a fourth wave.

“They received a letter for the end of the testing component of the travel visa in March,” one source told Tribune Business of the Health Travel Visa providers yesterday. “However discussions have been ongoing and meetings are scheduled this week.”

Chester Cooper, deputy prime minister, and also minister of tourism, investments and aviation, who has immediate oversight of the Health Travel Visa, referred this newspaper to Reginald Saunders, his ministry’s permanent secretary, when questioned about the letter yesterday.

In messaged replies, he added that the Health Travel Visa scheme was being reviewed monthly to determine if it is still needed amid ongoing concerns about a potential fourth wave of COVID infections striking The Bahamas. “The principle is that we are on a month-to-month as we monitor the ongoing need for the programme, inclusive of the possibility of a fourth wave,” Mr Cooper said. “The position is that all providers are operating on a month-to-month basis.”

Mr Saunders could not be reached for comment yesterday, but one source said the notification went beyond just an end to COVID-19 testing. “Everybody received a 60-day notice,” they added. “Nobody knows what’s happening after that.”

They added that the notice had been issued to the trio of Ports International, Alpha Tango Media and Think Simple. The former supplies the rapid antigen test kits employed for the Health Travel Visa, with Alpha Tango’s job being to facilitate distribution of these kits to the 150 laboratories conducting the testing nationwide. Think Simple is the software programmer for the scheme’s online portal.

“I don’t know if they wish to put their people there,” the source said of the Government. “I don’t get why they are doing this. Don’t just constantly tweak it to fulfill a political agenda. Are they going to shut it down or give it to someone else? They will probably say they are bringing it in-house.

“The only thing that worries me is if they get rid of the programmer. Software is quite complex, and somebody has to navigate through that. You have 1m records in that thing, passport information, and so far they’ve succeeded in keeping the hackers at bay.”

The Auditor General’s Office, in its recent report on the Health Travel Visa, voiced concern that the source code listings remained Think Simple’s property. It warned that this exposed the Ministry of Tourism to “significant risks” if the programmer ceased to exist, was sold to another firm, or a dispute erupted that was resolved in Think Simple’s favour, as changes to the online application would be near-impossible without the source codes.

However, the source argued that the Government owns both the software and the Health Travel Visa program. They added that eliminating the Health Travel Visa online platform would result in the Ministry of Tourism again having to rely on the manual Immigration cards to determine visitors’ preferences and experiences, adding: “The information is priceless.”

Nicholas Rees, Kanoo’s chairman, told Tribune Business that the digital payments provider has received no notification from the Government and continues operating month-to-month as the link between the Health Travel Visa portal and the Ministry of Tourism’s bank account.

“I can’t confirm that but I have heard of that also,” he said of the letter sent to other scheme providers. “I haven’t received any notice like that; not yet. I heard that they may be getting removed, cancelled or changed, but if you look globally how long is this programme going to be permitted in any event? 

“It was always a short-term project. Aruba is eliminating everything altogether. It will be interesting to see how long it lasts. I always expected it to go for a year.” The Minnis administration had budgeted for the Health Travel Visa to be phased-out in the 2022-2023 fiscal year, with fee income dropping from $40m in 2021-2022 to $22.32m and zero after that.

Much may depend on when/if the US relaxes its own entry requirements, which mandate that returning citizens and travellers produce a negative COVID test taken within 24 hours of their flight departing. That will likely prompt The Bahamas to relax its own COVID testing requirements. 

However, one COVID testing provider, speaking on condition of anonymity, voiced fears that the lack of information could leave themselves and others financially exposed having pre-ordered, and paid for, COVID test kits that may now not be needed.

“A lot of us have invested a hell of a lot in rapid antigen testing,” they said. “If they are going to throw in the towel on it, it will be without common courtesy. What I don’t understand is that all of us should have received notification. What about the testers? Aren’t we entitled to prior knowledge as well? What about those of us doing large volumes of tests? We’ve pre-paid for large volumes of tests.”

The Health Travel Visa had become unpopular with many Bahamians, who viewed the associated fees as akin to being taxed to return to their homeland, prior to the Government lifting that burden on locals in December 2021. It has also been viewed as a deterrent to travel to The Bahamas, both because of the extra bureaucracy and costs - especially for a family - despite the approval turnaround time having narrowed considerably. 

Mr Cooper also recently confirmed that the Government plans to end the Health Travel Visa, although he did not say when. “We are hopeful that we have seen the end of COVID,” Mr Cooper said last week. “We are monitoring it in collaboration with the Ministry of Health, and when we make a determination that we no longer need the Health Travel Visa, it will go away.

“So I foreshadow this is a transition period, and during the transition period, if the determination is made that we are comfortable with the state of COVID in the world, then it will be eliminated. It is not here to stay indefinitely, but I cannot give you a specific date at this time as to when it will be eliminated.”

Comments

ohdrap4 4 months, 2 weeks ago

“A lot of us have invested a hell of a lot in rapid antigen testing,”

Highway bandits . Make the common man get tested every week now that gasoline is over 6 dollars a gallon.

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ThisIsOurs 4 months, 2 weeks ago

"lot of us have invested a hell of a lot in rapid antigen testing,” they said. “If they are going to throw in the towel on it, it will be without common courtesy. What I don’t understand is that all of us should have received notification. What about the testers? Aren’t we entitled to prior knowledge as well? What about those of us doing large volumes of tests? We’ve pre-paid for large volumes of tests.”

This is not strategic thinking.

It seems odd to me that people would just keep placing order after order with no strategy or predictive assessment over that ordering. Maybe the "strategy" was similar to the one DAguilar supported: "at our company, we dont do any big planning, we just do stuff". This is what happens when you just do stuff without a strategy and are proud that "something" got done.

I said from last year, if we get through March we "might" be over the pandemic, because exponential tourist arrivals always brought COVID spikes and the next exponential arrival would be spring break. With that realization by Jan Feb, youre already taking a more cautious approach with your supply levels...

(I said "might" because every pandemic in history has had a later resurgence... so who knows)

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ohdrap4 4 months, 2 weeks ago

Did the "deep cleaning" people get their notice?

Do we still have to wash groceries?

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Alan1 4 months, 2 weeks ago

The Health Visa and all the tests should be abolished immediately, We have had two years of complaints from overseas travel agents and visitors how difficult and impossible in many cases to come here. We have lost so many visitors and revenue to our competitors who did not impose the time consuming entry requirements. All the legitimate complaints were ignored by both governments. . No wonder hotel workers did not have jobs and hotels closed. Even regular visitors are going elsewhere now. A tragic error on the part of the Ministry of Tourism and the two Ministers.

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ThisIsOurs 4 months, 2 weeks ago

The most weird thing about this entire pandemic is the utter refusal for the powers that be to acknowledge that tourism was the source of our greatest spikes. From the 1900's health officials realized travel was the source of infection so they isolated sailors coming into port until they were deemed infection free. Its like we deliberately put blinders on and earmuffs in so we couldnt see or hear about the dots and could go on making money while people dropped dead.

The quality and efficiency of the travel visa is a separate matter.

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