#Providenciales, Turks and Caicos Islands – July 2, 2020 – Safe accommodations and a rescue flight to return for stranded Turks and Caicos residents were among the plans on the table tonight after a Covid-19 repatriation exercise today went disturbingly wrong.
Twenty-seven individuals were left behind in disbelief at the Sheltair private airport in Ft Lauderdale, South Florida as they watched their interCaribbean Airways chartered plane take off with no passengers on board.
Entry for everyone, including new born babies and their mothers was denied by Turks and Caicos Health officials without explanation and at the last minute.
Once news of this shocking abandonment of Turks and Caicos people hit mainstream and social media; comments revealed widespread outrage and bewilderment about the Government’s handling of the return home of citizens and expatriate workers.
Though many have pointed their fingers at the government administration, we are told tonight that if it were the final decision of the Minister and PDM Administration, all 27 individuals would be back on Turks and Caicos soil.
“We are very much disappointed; especially with our people being out there in Florida where you have so many more cases (of Covid-19); they are at a higher risk being out there. So any flights coming with seats on it, we want to have our people to fill it as much as we can, to bring our people home,” said the Minister of Health, Edwin Astwood.
In an interview this evening, the Minister confirmed to Magnetic Media that he was made aware of the denial of entry to 27 residents and citizens late Wednesday night. The individuals, had either bought their own tickets or had airfare paid for by the National Health Insurance Plan, which arranged seats for returning patients.
The response to the outcry for help was an immediate review the passenger list, after which he issued this recommendation:
“In reviewing the list of persons scheduled on the flight, the majority are NHIP patients and the remainder is in possession of a recent Covid-19 negative test result. Also included are three mothers with newborn babies. In addition, most stated that they would be able to quarantine at home (being in possession of their recent negative Covid-19 test).
I am recommending that the flight be granted leave to enter the TCI tomorrow afternoon, bringing the returning residents.”
With the Minister of Health on their side, the residents who had been previously informed their re-entry was denied were confident the repatriation flight would now take place. However, those hopes were crushed and instead the terminal was an emotional mix of tears, frustration, anger and bitter disappointment for the passengers, their families and the interCaribbean Airways crew.
The Minister confirmed that his Wednesday night communication was dispatched, via email, to the Chief Medical Officer, who is Dr. Nadia Astwood and the Director of Environmental Health, who is Kenrick Neely, among others.
“Maybe the Health officials thought they were working in the best interest of the general public because of the capacity and our recent outbreak (of coronavirus). That is what I am thinking that maybe they were thinking that they were acting in the public’s best interest by saying ‘no’ to this flight,” shared Minister Astwood.
The recommendation from the Minister, who is also a health professional, was rejected without notification, explanation or discussion.
“I thought persons would have taken the recommendation and go ahead with the flight, because I put myself on the line saying yes, that I would recommend that they do this flight. The relevant health officers, whom the (Public and Environmental Health) Ordinance empowers to make the final decision didn’t agree with the flight coming in,” explained Edwin Astwood.
Minister Astwood confirmed that up to the time of our interview, he had still not been offered a reason for the denial of the flight by the CMO and EHD Director.
The Minister did say that both officers have since been informed the situation their denial of re-entry has created will now cost the Government more money and has attracted considerable public backlash.
“We have the money that we can get a quarantine place. Now it will cost us the government much more in money and time, and funds are tight but it will cost us much more.”
It was also explained that knowing the details of this flight manifest in advance would have given the government administration more time to lobby for approvals and could have provided the opportunity to remove stumbling blocks.
“I have gotten other ministers involved; the Minister of Tourism, Immigration and the Premier are involved and we are seeing how we best we can sort out this problem and we have to do an investigation into what went wrong, why this happened at the ninth hour and why we were informed so late, yesterday evening.”
As for what happens tonight and when the residents can be brought home, Magnetic Media is informed that the National Health Insurance Board has been asked to offer assistance to residents until a rescue flight is arranged.
All stranded passengers are confirmed to have safe lodgings for the evening.
InterCaribbean Airways is ready to re-try the repatriation flight; requiring time to organize the mission and financial support from the Government to return for the individuals who remain stuck in Florida.