Cargo transportation between the UK and Kenya may be disrupted by up to a week from April 9 as the two countries seek an amicable solution on the admittance of crew on their respective soils.
Last week, both countries suspended passenger flights to each other's territories in tit-for-tat decisions over lack of uniform controls on Covid-19.
The UK was the first on April 2 when it banned travellers from Kenya, except UK nationals, effective April 9. London argued that Kenya's Covid-19 certifications for travellers have been faulty, with nearly 30 per cent of weekly 550 arrivals testing positive a day after arriving. Most of them had the South African variant of Covid-19, UK argued.
Kenya responded by banning flights and demanding that cargo flight crew must show vaccination certificates and a negative test result for admission. The problem is, neither side has an agreeable design of a vaccine certificate and what details it should contain.
And as a compromise, the UK had proposed to Kenya to implement rapid testing at airports to weed out fake or invalid travel certificates.
If Nairobi implements this, it could join Ghana which already tests passengers at airports with spot results at a cost of about $25 per person. But implementing the system could take at least a month, and its viability has yet to be discussed by the Kenyan government.
Kenya's Foreign Affairs Principal Secretary (PS) Macharia Kamau suggested trade routes between the countries will be unaffected, but he did admit that the adoption of new protocols will cause certain delays.
"You do not just stop people from travelling and expect that not to have an impact. We would rather never have had this issue come up because we are so positive about the trade relations that we are now building," he said last Wednesday.
"We want to review this within four weeks. We would love to review it within a week but we have to allow them to go through the motions. My expectation is that by May, June, we shall have this resolved, at the very latest."
He spoke after both sides announced they will create an emergency committee to review Covid-19 protocols.
Mr Kamau and Kenya's Health PS Susan Mochache will lead the Kenyan delegation that will also include Kenya's High Commissioner to the UK, Manoah Esipisu.
The suspension of flights was likely to hurt the entire east African region more. Kenya was the last connecting hub in the region to be put on the UK's Red List, which contains 39 countries that have been banned or restricted to control Covid-19.
In eastern Africa, Tanzania, Rwanda, and Ethiopia had already been placed on the Red List. And Africa's main connecting transport hubs Johannesburg, Nairobi, Addis Ababa as well as Dubai and Doha in the Middle East are now all on the UK list.
Officials said this cut-off will more likely hurt individual deal making. But Cargo flights may also delay for some days as proper certification for crew is discussed.
Kenya is not yet giving Covid-19 certificates, but recipients have been receiving text messages notifying them on the next date of vaccination, and batch number they have been vaccinated with.
The UK has issued vaccination cards to recipients. But the targeted group includes people who are 50 and above, health and social workers, vulnerable groups and those with disabilities. The vaccination card indicates the type of vaccine a person has been inoculated with. Pilots and crew have not been listed as essential groups to receive the vaccine, nor the certificates. Officials said the crew may have to wait or try their luck in Kenya.
The UK's bone of contention last week was that some travellers transiting or leaving Kenya may have used forged certificates, or lab technicians were entering faulty data. Both sides have not agreed on the standard look of Covid-19 certificates.
Diplomatic sources told The EastAfrican that Kenya was willing to have their systems audited, even though Nairobi was angered by the 'surprising' announcement which came after two senior ministers from London toured Nairobi and "said nothing about it," according to one official, referring to James Duddridge, the UK Minister for Africa and Dominic Raab, the Foreign Secretary, both of who were in Nairobi in January.
The two countries recently signed a trade agreement to add to a security deal signed last year. They were expected to sign another bilateral agreement on Defence. The travel bans could now delay that.
Towards the end of last week, the two sides appeared to climb down the tension ladder after Kenya's Foreign Affairs Cabinet Secretary Raychelle Omamo and her British counterpart Dominic Raab spoke on phone.
The Foreign Affairs Ministry said Ms Omamo "held positive deliberations with the UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab" and "agreed on the establishment of a Joint Emergency Committee to address Covid-19 Emergency travel restrictions."
A spokesperson from the UK High Commission in Nairobi said "they discussed the strength of our relationship - on trade, regional security, and health."
This is the second time Nairobi has been forced to scrutinise Covid-19 certificates after the United Arab Emirates earlier raised questions about them. At the time, Kenya responded by accrediting hospitals allowed to test for Covid-19. Each of the facilities then issues the traveller with a code that an airline or airport official can verify.
"Kenya has put in place systems to ensure that the disease and its natural mutations are identified, tracked, managed and treated in the most proficient [way]," Nairobi said on April 3, in a statement.
Kenya had accused the UK of discrimination and especially on 'vaccine apartheid', something the UK has now protested. The Joint Committee is expected to address vaccine access as a separate issue, which will not directly influence whether restrictions are removed.
The UK has vaccinated most of its adult population and expects to have done so for everyone by end of June. Critics, however, say that the UK has ordered more doses than it currently needs, hoarding the commodity and thus contributing to a shortage in poorer nations.