Sierra Leone's International Airport will reopen to commercial flights effective 22 July 2020 after it was closed in March this year to all international passenger flights due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This measure was initiated prior to confirmation of the first COVID-19 case in the country. Some of the initial measures before closure of the airport included mandatory quarantining of passengers traveling from countries affected by the outbreak at the time.
Preparations are now underway and the aviation authorities and partners are in readiness for the commencement of full operations at the Lungi International Airport, the main gateway in and out of Sierra Leone.
Reopening of the airport is part of the recent actions taken by the Sierra Leonean authorities to ease some of the restrictions instituted as part of the COVID-19 response. Schools are now partially opened for examinations candidates, and bans have been lifted on inter-district travel and places of worship but with requirements to observe preventive measures.
"Reopening the country is a welcome development. However, ensuring that all the appropriate public health measures are in place and fully implemented will help to safeguard lives and prevent further spread of this epidemic", says Evans Liyosi, WHO Representative in Sierra Leone.
In readiness for the reopening of the Airport, the aviation sector and public health authorities and partners including WHO, IOM, are working closely to mitigate the risk of transmission of the disease among passengers as well as staff and service providers at the facility.
A new travel advisory has been issued by the government containing safety and public health guidelines which passengers are required to fully comply with. The guidelines include mandatory laboratory testing for all inbound passengers upon arrival at the airport where a laboratory facility has been set up to facilitate the process. Meanwhile, proof of a negative COVID-19 result issued by the Ministry of Health and Sanitation within 72 hours prior to departure is a requirement for all outbound passengers.
Following training of airport employees and service providers, as well as development of new operating procedures, the airport authority, aviation stakeholders and health sector partners conducted two full-scale field simulation exercises to test the readiness of the facility to manage the flow of passengers, and to detect persons suspected of COVID-19 or other public health conditions. The lessons of this exercise swill be helpful in ensuring continued improvement and strategic decisions for the aviation and health authorities in Sierra Leone.
"We were quite impressed by the planning and arrangement in place so far, despite few challenges. What remains is continuous improvement and enforcement of everything that has been instituted. Enforcement and civil adherence to preventive measures are the key drivers of progress in the fight against this pandemic and that is what we are seeing in countries that are now putting the outbreak under control", says Charles Njuguna, Health Security and Emergency Lead at the WHO Country Office in Sierra Leone.
WHO is working closely with the national authorities and has been providing technical guidance on health and best practices on international travel protocols during the COVID-19 pandemic.