New COVID-19 variant may enter Sri Lanka: health expert

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Colombo, Jan 5 (PTI) Sri Lanka faces the danger of new coronavirus variant entering the country as the government has allowed the foreign tourists to return to the island nation, a senior epidemilogist warned on Tuesday.

A group of Ukrainian tourists became the first batch of holidayers to visit Sri Lanka last month in more than eight months after the island nation put curbs on international travel due to the COVID-19 outbreak.

'We have to make sure that all health protocols are strictly followed. Those who come in are actually touring the country during their mandatory quarantine period,' said Dr Sudath Samaraweera, the chief epidemiologist.

Since last week, at least 3 groups of tourists form Ukraine have arrived under a pilot project to revive tourism in the island nation. The authorities have ensured they are on a bio bubble.

However, the government's decision to allow over 500 tourists from Ukraine into the country sparked a controversy after drivers of the wild safari the tourist had been on were forced to be under quarantine.

They claim that the tour organisers had cheated them by forcing them to go under quarantine.

The England Cricket team also arrived on Sunday for a 2 Test matches and it was announced on Monday that one of their main players, all rounder Moeen Ali, had tested positive for COVID-19.

Samaraweera said the organisers must ensure that all health protocols are strictly adhered to as there was a danger of new cluster forming through contacts of foreigners.

The warning came after the chair of the Tourism Development Authroity made a written complaint to the government that the Ukrainian tourists had been taken on inland tours while breaching the pre arrangements made by the authority while considering the health concerns.

Sri Lanka's two international airports were closed in mid-March, as the country went into a lockdown due to the COVID-19 outbreak. The lockdown was gradually lifted by mid-May. Initial plans were to open international flight by the end of August but the COVID-19 cases abroad rose and the plans were stalled.

Sri Lanka was hit by a coronavirus second wave in October. Earlier last month, Sri Lankan authorities said they would resume international flight operations from December 26.

However, the latest date for re-opening international travel was also deferred. Chair of Airports Authority GA Chandrasiri said the delay was caused by the new strain of coronavirus, which has forced parts of Europe into tougher virus restrictions.

The Sri Lankan government has incentivised air travel in the months following the COVID-19-induced air travel break, offering zero parking fee and landing costs for international operators.

Sri Lanka had seen a major surge in COVID-19 infections since early October. The number of deaths which stood at just 13 by October have now passed the 200 mark. PTI CORR MRJ MRJ