UK removes Turkey from ‘travel-free corridor’ amid disputed COVID statistics

ANKARA: After Ankara announced that it has not published the full number of daily positive COVID-19 cases, European countries have begun revising their travel precautions regarding Turkey.

The UK quickly removed Turkey from its quarantine-free list after the statement of Turkish Health Minister Fahrettin Koca that official figures include only symptomatic COVID-19 cases.

British Transport Minister Grant Shapps said on Oct. 1: “The Turkish Health Ministry has been defining the number of new COVID-19 cases in a different way to the definition used by international organisations such as the World Health Organization (WHO) and the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, so we have updated our risk assessment for the country.”

Accordingly, Turkish travelers arriving in England and Scotland are obliged to self-isolate for two weeks starting from Oct. 3, officials said as they expanded their COVID-19 quarantine lists.

The penalty for breaching self-isolation rules has also been increased to £10,000 ($13,000).

Other European countries may follow suit over the fear that a huge spike in new cases had been covered up, experts say.

European countries such as the Netherlands and Ireland are already placing travelers returning from Turkey under quarantine for 15 days, and do not allow the entry of Turkish citizens unless they have dual citizenship or residency permit.

“From the perspective of European countries, it is totally understandable to protect their own citizens from passengers arriving from risky countries,” Prof. Guner Sonmez, a radiologist from Uskudar University in Istanbul, told Arab News.

“However, it is a massive blow for the Turkish travel industry and its economy and could place Turkey among untrustworthy countries.” 

Before the pandemic, Turkey ranked sixth in the world for the number of tourists it attracts, according to the UN World Tourism Organization figures.

Turkey’s divergence from the international norms for calculating its COVID-19 data has created a big concern about the government’s transparency and data processing, according to Dr. Ergin Kocyildirim, who is a pediatric cardiothoracic surgeon and an assistant professor in the Department of Cardiothoracic Surgery at the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Medicine.

“There are international public health measures especially for airline travel. In these circumstances, any public health data processing or projection are void due to the Turkish data sharing and processing methods,” he said.

Turkey’s official COVID figures have long been disputed by medical organizations and opposition politicians. The number of new COVID-19 cases in Turkey on Sept. 10 was about 20 times more than the official figures, according to a document that was recently revealed by opposition lawmaker Murat Emir.

Kocyildirim thinks that one of the main reasons for the current state of the outbreak in Turkey is the lack of robust data collecting and processing.

“I hope the Turkish Health Minister will apologize for his mistakes and will make a fresh start to create the core level of public trust,” he said.

Prof. Sonmez expects that other countries may also exempt Turkey from their travel corridor amid pandemic restrictions.

“From now on, all official figures are likely to be questioned and will spark concerns about the transparency of health management in Turkey,” he said.

Following Turkey’s announcement, WHO asked for more detailed information from the Turkish Health Ministry, and advised the country to isolate all positive cases, both symptomatic and asymptomatic ones, in order to break the contagion effectively.

The Turkish Medical Association (TTB) responded to Koca’s revelations by releasing a statement saying, “We have been declaring this for six months. You haven’t run the process transparently. You have hidden the truth. You haven’t prevented the spread of the disease.”

Caghan Kizil, a neuroscience and genetics expert at Dresden University's Faculty of Medicine, noted that the main non-pharmaceutical prevention route for the pandemic is to reduce the community transmission of the virus by isolating all infected individuals and documenting all these cases. 

“As Turkey’s strategy was declared to be documenting only the hospitalized COVID cases, this poses a threat for the control of the pandemic. Asymptomatic cases are capable of spreading the virus, and if these people are not documented or officially listed, the community virus load might be higher than anticipated. This will necessitate measures for other countries to protect themselves and therefore revisit their travel regulations for Turkey,” he told Arab News. 

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