A year of closed borders

Tomorrow marks one year since the implementation of one of the most controversial measures by the government to protect the country against the COVID-19 pandemic—the closure of the borders.

The move was announced on March 21, 2020, giving citizens abroad just one day to return to the country.

Compounding the urgency to return was the limited number of flights available as the pandemic, which was already in full swing globally, had already begun taking its toll on the airline industry. 

It’s no surprise given these conditions that thousands weren’t able to meet the deadline and so began the struggle for exemptions to enter despite the closed borders. 

Responding to a question from Independent Senator Paul Richards in the Senate on March 16, Minister of National Security Stuart Young indicated that up to February 9 the figure of 12,509 exemptions were granted.

“The majority of these persons are citizens (of T&T) and the exact numbers are currently being verified (for permanent residents). As at June 2, 2020, permanent residents were granted exemptions to return to Trinidad and Tobago and each request is examined on a case by case basis,” he said.

Minister Young—and by extension the government—have maintained that nationals vacationing or who were temporarily abroad when the borders were closed would be given top preference to return home. 

After the exemption policy was implemented many citizens abroad and locally complained about what they described as inconsistencies, which prompted Minister Young and the government to announce an online application system in January.

The border closure was the final of several travel measures implemented by the government to delay or mitigate the importation of the virus.

The first travel control measure came on January 29, 2020, when thermal screening of arriving passengers was implemented at the airports. One day later on January 30 Cabinet approved travel restrictions to prevent travellers from entering the country within 14 days of leaving China- the home country and epicentre of the COVID-19 outbreak at the time.

On February 27, Cabinet added five more countries to the travel restriction list and gave Health Minister Terrence Deyalsingh sweeping authority to add more countries without its approval. The countries added to the restricted were South Korea, Italy, Iran, Singapore and Japan, which saw rapid increases in cases within the previous week to the decision.

One year later and there is still no official word on when the borders would reopen.

However, the Prime Minister and health officials have noted that the emergence of variants of concern has delayed their plans for this.