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Monday, September 25, 2023

UK cancels resumption of Gambia Bird direct flights to Sierra Leone


The Department of Transport cited the deteriorating public health situation for the revocation when it notified the German-owned airline on Friday evening. The airline said it would appeal against the decision, especially as its licence was only granted on 26 September.

The decision closed what charities and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) said was a vital humanitarian corridor to Sierra Leone, which is struggling to cope with the Ebola outbreak.

Médecins sans Frontières, the charity on the frontline of the Ebola outbreak since the beginning, criticised the decision. It said if the government was going to stop commercial airlines flying to the region it would have to put in place state alternatives.

“It’s extremely difficult to get much-needed staff into the region and at a time that we need more people on the ground than ever, this is very unhelpful,” said a spokeswoman.

Freight company Redcoat said that among the cargo booked for Friday was 1,000 personal protective equipment kits including overalls, masks and goggles for doctors and nurses.

A spokesman for Gambia Bird’s official agent in the UK, McPhillips Travel, said there were about 60 passengers on the first flight which was scheduled to leave Gatwick on Friday. The plane also had about 4 tonnes of humanitarian aid.

“We think it is an overreaction,” Ben Mortimer said. “The situation was bad on 26 September. It is worse now, but not much. We already had protocols in place as part of the permit in which they had the names and addresses of all passengers in the event they needed to trace people. This is much better than trying to screen people who are coming into the country from Europe or Morocco on an indirect route,” he said.

Gambia Bird, along with British Airways and Air France, stopped services to and from Sierra Leone in August but the Banjul-based German-owned airline announced it was resuming flights because of the damage being caused by the lack of access.

Only one European airline, Brussels Airlines, has maintained its operations, allowing travel for doctors, nurses and other workers.

In a statement issued to its passengers and commercial partners, McPhillips Travel said the decision “punishes Sierra Leone and west Africa in general”.

It said “extremely stringent” passenger screening procedures had been put in place at Lunghi airport in the capital, Freetown, and that Public Health England was consulted throughout the planning process and “was satisfied that measures being taken were adequately robust”.

Direct flights would provide easier, more cost-effective access for humanitarian aid in the form of NGO volunteers, medical professionals and supplies to combat Ebola, it said.

A spokesman for the Department of Transport said the inconvenience to passengers was unfortunate but its priority was tackling the spread of Ebola and protecting the British public from the disease.

It said it would “continue to explore options which could assist travel by NGO workers to affected areas”.


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