Unexplained sudden abolition of mandatory PCR testing on arrival makes Cabinet approved project irrelevant
By Shamindra Ferdinando
A state-of- the- art PCR (Polymerase Chain Reaction) testing facility built at a cost of USD 5 mn at the Bandaranaike International Airport (BIA) recently is idling due to a government decision to do away with the requirement for the inbound passengers to undergo Covid-19 testing.
The AASL- Hospinorm PCR Laboratory has the capacity to conduct approximately 7,000 tests a day.
Health Minister Keheliya Rambukwella and Aviation Minister Prasanna Ranatunga declared opened the facility located outside the BIA on 23 Sept.
Aviation Minister Ranatunga is on record as having said that the opening of the new facility will end corrupt practices in the mandatory hotel quarantine process.
Sources said that though a private company wholly in the project, it is owned by the Airport and Aviation Services Sri Lanka Private Ltd. The laboratory is managed by Airport and Aviation Services under a two-year management contract. The lab charges $ 40 for a PCR test for travelers. A sizeable share of that fee goes to the investor.
Responding to a query, sources said that the Aviation Ministry obtained cabinet approval for the project in July, 2021. Having swiftly handled the process, the Aviation Ministry paved the way for the setting up of the operation by late September, sources said.
These sources said that the fate that had befallen quite unexpectedly on the private investment had placed the ministries concerned at an embarrassing position.
The disruption of the BIA project occurred close on the heels of the Association of Private Hospitals and Nursing Homes (APHNH) seeking an opportunity to partner the government in similar ventures. APHNH secretary Dr. Sunil Ratnapriya, in a letter addressed to the health Minister of underscored the private sector laboratories performed approximately 60% of the total PCR workload of the country, and almost all the PCR requirements of the tourism industry, BOI (Board of Investment) and quarantine centres in hotels, with results being released within 24-36 hours.
Dr. Ratnapriya, a one-time GMOA firebrand expressed surprise at the government reaching an agreement with a foreign investor at their expense. The statement quoted Dr. Ratnapriya as having requested that the government prioritize and consider local healthcare investors as a partner in efforts such as this, given the expertise and international standards upheld by our member hospitals over the past two years.
With the abolition of mandatory PCR testing, the possibility of infected passengers, both locals and foreigners entering the society couldn’t be ruled out. Earlier, all those arriving at the BIA regardless of their vaccination status were subjected to hotel quarantine, in some instances at exorbitant room rates. At one point, the hotel quarantine got quite controversial due to shady deals, sources pointed out recalling no person less than Commander of the Army General Shavendra Silva had to intervene in January this year.
Addressing hoteliers in his capacity as the Head of the National Operation Centre for Prevention of COVID-19 Outbreak (NOCPCO), Gen. Silva acknowledged there had been attempts to extort money from hotels assigned the quarantine task. Sources said that it was the responsibility of the government to prevent unscrupulous elements from exploiting both foreigners and locals arriving in the country.