I am compelled to relay my recent travel experience for other intending travellers to learn and be guided so that they will not be stranded, especially those transiting through another country to their final destinations. This is not the best of times to embark on an international trip except it is highly necessary. The COVID-19 pandemic has changed so many travel protocols such that many international travellers especially those transiting have been stranded because they were not fully aware of the rules or they just took things for granted.
While it is good to impose stringent conditions to stop the spread of the COVID-19 virus from one country to another, the various governments and all concerned with imposing and implementing the COVID-19 protocols especially the accredited laboratories should be effective on rendering services to travellers. There are some documents or certificates which are issued after COVID-19 tests by an intending traveller without which he or she cannot travel.
I travelled to the UK on August 30, 2021 transiting through Schiphol airport, Amsterdam to Heathrow, London. I had the option of traveling directly to the UK but I choose to be adventurous by stopping over at Amsterdam on my departure to London and through Paris on my return trip to Lagos. I have never been to the two countries before even though I will only pass through their airports in transit, I craved for the experience and I enjoyed it, especially when the transit time was not that long. My adventure nearly put me in trouble because of COVID-19 protocols especially test results which are time bound.
What every intending traveller out of Nigeria and to Nigeria should know is that there are series of COVID-19 tests to be conducted both before they leave and return to Nigeria. There is one test to be done 72 or 48 hours to your departure depending on the country you are visiting and these rules do change from time to time so travellers are advised to be up to date about the rules.
In case of the UK, I must conduct a COVID-19 test with a negative result not more than 72 hours before my departure. I am also required to pay for a test online in the UK before my departure and evidence of this must be presented at the airport before I will be allowed to board. For passengers transiting through another country, they should be mindful of the timing of their tests so that it doesn’t lapse before arriving their final destination while transiting.
I did all the tests required before my trip and I had no problem boarding at the Murtala Mohammed International Airport, Lagos. The laboratory where I did my test (Sahel Laboratories) was one of the accredited and it was very effective and professional and the result was released timely. I was also required to pay for two tests on my arrival at the UK (Day 2 and Day 8). There is the option of day 5 test (to release) which attracted extra fee but I preferred to take the day 2 and 8 test and isolate for 10 days. I paid £89.99 GBP to one 10-10 Labs. It should be noted that Nigeria’s COVID-19 vaccine was not recognised in the UK even if you have been vaccinated twice. My green card showing that I have been vaccinated twice was never requested at any of the airports that I travelled through.
I arrived the UK on August Tuesday 31 and isolated for 10 days. The test kits I paid for in Nigeria arrived at the address I gave online on Wednesday September 1, day 2 of arrival. I did the swab myself and sent it back to them as instructed. I was expecting the result within 24 hours but I was wrong as it did not arrive until day 8 which I did the second test. The result of the second test arrived on Sunday September 12 when I was already in Nigeria!
Day 2 and 8 tests is to know my status while I was in isolation for 10 days and the result was expected to be released within 24 hours but the result of day 2 came on day 8 while that of day 8 came when I was already in Nigeria on September 12 which has defeated its purpose. If I had tested positive, I must continue to isolate but if negative, I am free to go out after day 10. The UK health officials came to look for me five days into my isolation to know if was observing the isolation and they met me at home. They asked how I was feeling and I told them I was okay. I complained I have not received my Day 2 COVID-19 result and the officer told me I should keep expecting the result. He checked my passport and left. Violators of the isolation rule will be fined £10,000 GBP.
My travails started when I was preparing to embark on my return trip to Nigeria. I was booked to travel to Lagos via Air France and transit through Charles De Gaul Airport. To travel to Nigeria from the UK, I was required to do another test called fit-to-fly back to Nigeria. Nigeria’s requirement is that the test must be carried out 72 hours to departure while the European rule is 48hours to departure if a passenger is either transiting or landing in any European country.
The result of this last test must be out at least 48 hours to departure to my final destination from my last transit airport which is France. It is this result which must be negative that I will need to fill the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) form online without which no airline will allow me to board! Due to the experience I had with the 10-10 laboratory that did my day 2 and 8 tests, I decided not to patronise them for my fit-to-fly test.
I reviewed the situation with my host in the UK whose friend recently travelled to Nigeria. His friend recommended a laboratory called Dante that will do the test and the result will be out 48 hours to my departure. I paid 48 pounds online on Wednesday September 6. The kit was sent to me on Thursday September 7 and I did the swab and sent it back same day as instructed. I calculated that the swab will be received the following day, Friday and expected the results to be ready Saturday because my return flight was 9am from London to Paris while my final flight to Lagos from Paris was 3.30pm which I have explained to them via email. This means the fit-to-fly result must be out around 2pm on Saturday to be on the safer side because by the time I will arrive France, the 48 hours should not have expired! If this it expired by the time I get to Paris, I won’t be allowed to board! I later met some passengers in Paris who were stranded because their fit to fly test had expired by the time they got to Paris and they were not allowed to board until they repeated the test with 200 Euro and paid another 300 Euro fine for a rescheduled flight the following day. Some slept at the airport! My test result from Dante Labs did not come until I had boarded in Paris around 3.09pm on September 12! I would have missed my flight right from Heathrow if I didn’t have a plan B.
The first sign of trouble was that my email to Dante lab was not replied and the contact number on their web address was switched off! There was no office address for the laboratory. An alarm bell rang in my ears and I told my host I should have a plan B so that I will not miss my flight. I needed the result unfailingly on Saturday without which I could not fill the Nigerian form. So he called another friend who also recently travelled to Nigeria from the UK and who transited through Paris. He was my saviour! He advised I should forget about the test with Dante and go to Test Express, a walk-through laboratory somewhere in the Westfield Mall. So I paid another 80 pounds online and got a 7.30pm appointment for Friday. They were so professional and effective. They constantly communicated through SMS and email constantly reminding me of my appointment. I went there and did the test and they assured my result would be out before 10pm on Saturday which was okay by me. The result was out by 3.29pm on Saturday. It was negative meaning I was fit to fly. As I was about heaving a sigh of relief, another problem started. I needed to upload the certificate of the test as required by the Nigerian online form. I started filling the form and it was smooth up to the point where I was required to upload my certificate. The column kept rejecting the upload and we were on this for more than 6 hours. We kept calling people for help but no solution. One of those we called said somebody has also called to complain about the same problem. I now contacted my travel agent who said I should by pass the column and go to the column where I should pay. I tried that and I paid (N39,500) with my Nigerian credit card. My money was deducted but no message came from NCDC that I have paid and without a certificate showing PAID I won’t be allowed to board! My agent took over the filling of the form and informed me that the money I paid did not reflect but my form had been received as completed. A certificate was sent but UNPAID was written on it meaning I could not board with it. Time was around 9pm on Saturday and my flight was 9am on Sunday meaning I must be at the airport by 7am latest. My travel agent had to pay another amount N39, 500 from her end using another bank credit card. It was after the second payment that the certificate showing PAID was sent to my email around 10pm.
I could not print the certificates at that time of the day but I have them on my phone which is allowed. I heaved a sigh of relief that at last, I was going back home. I checked in at Heathrow without any problem having shown the two certificates, the COVID test in London and the NCDC fit-to-fly form with PAID written. The NCDC later that night issued a circular to all airlines to allow passengers without the PAID certificate board because there was a problem with their portal! I was further relieved but I was wrong because the airlines were either not aware of the circular or chose to ignore it all the same because while London did not ask for it, Paris insisted and without it, I would have been prevented from boarding!
I got to Paris around 11.25 and as we started boarding around 3pm, my phone glitches and suddenly went blank! I almost fainted! It came on about 2 minutes after and I showed the airline officials my NCDC certificate and was allowed to board. It is always better to have a printed copy! Some passengers with UNPAID NCDC certificate were not allowed to board!
On arrival at Lagos airport, the NCDC form was again requested before any passenger was allowed to go through immigrations formality. I finally arrived and left the airport about 1 hour after landing. My experience showed that while the Nigerian government is trying to control the spread of Covid 19 with strict adherence to the online form should have been made easier and if the portal had problem, the airlines should have been informed earlier and ensured they complied with the circular allowing them to board passengers who could not pay for the Nigerian test. Many passengers suffered untold hardship as a result of this laxity and many paid the testing fee twice. I paid twice and I am yet to be refunded. In the UK, many of the accredited laboratories are not serious about releasing test results on time and many don’t care if a passengers misses his flight! Passengers whose fit-to-fly tests expired due to flight delays at transit countries should not be made to suffer due to no fault of theirs. In spite of the hitches in filling the NCDC form, it is my opinion that Nigeria still manages the spread of Covid better than many countries and this may be the reason why the UK has recently moved Nigeria from the amber list to the Green list. This means that Nigeria passengers to the UK who have been fully vaccinated may not need to isolate on arrival in the UK. The authorities concerned should rectify all the lapses mentioned and make traveling pleasant for passengers despite COVID protocols!
Honourable Hakeem Jamiu,
Deputy Speaker, Ekiti State House of Assembly, (EKHA),
Culled from the TheCable