Yangchen C Rinzin

Prime Minister Dr Lotay Tshering yesterday said that everyone returning from abroad must adhere to strict quarantine standards for two weeks to protect loved ones and communities from contracting the virus.

“Except for those who think they are invincible and that COVID-19 cannot infect them, it is otherwise compulsory for all to quarantine,” he said at a press conference.

He said health ministry’s notifications should be enforced without exceptions of the individual traveller’s status. This he said in response to a question from the media that some travellers who arrived from Bangkok in Drukair were allowed to self-quarantine at home while others were placed at the quarantine centres in Paro.

“We request people to inform us if you know anyone who has returned and is not quarantining, especially those returning from COVID-19 affected countries,” Lyonchhen said.

Lyonchhen said that since many Bhutanese are returning every day, there is a designated officer with the Prime Minister’s Office looking for additional quarantine centres. While some of the hotels came forward to offer as quarantine centres on volunteer, few of the hotels are kept on subsidised rates.

“Those who wanted to offer earlier voluntarily or for free are now hinting towards an offer with charges,” Lyonchhen said. “There are fewer quarantine centres in Phuentsholing, which may not suffice so, we’re looking into taking over some of the schools as quarantine centres.”

Lyonchhen said that although quarantining people incur huge expense it is the responsibility of the government to ensure that there are enough facilities for those coming in. “The health and safety of our people are our primary concern, the cost is secondary. We will ensure there is an adequate budget,” Lyonchhen said.

Following the government’s announcement mandatory quarantine for all travellers, including Bhutanese, 182 Bhutanese are placed in quarantine centres as of yesterday.

Exceptions are made for minors below 18 years who would be sent for home quarantine after an undertaking from parents or a legit guardian.

Foreign Minister Dr Tandi Dorji said that around 100 Bhutanese are returning home from abroad every day, adding to those already in quarantine centres.

“In addition to those in quarantine centres, we’re also monitoring those in home quarantine. They cannot mingle with others for the safety of themselves and those around them,” Lyonpo said.

“We’re keeping a record of how many Bhutanese will be coming to Bhutan every day and all of them will be quarantined.”

On the complaint that a few passengers were granted home quarantine after screening at the airport yesterday, he said that there were people who requested home quarantine.

“A health official team will inspect and ensure that they meet the set quarantine criteria before approving them to stay home quarantine.”

Lyonpo said so far about six passengers had requested home quarantine and the health ministry ensures that quarantining is followed strictly.

“If they wish they can offer the same quarantine to the government after completing two weeks. There is no category or differences for elites and other people to be quarantined,” the minister said.

According to the quarantine criteria, crew members of airlines are exempted from quarantine although they should present for the screening. “The crew members have to quarantine themselves except when they have to attend to their flight duties.”

Individuals like day workers, parents travelling with minors, truckers ferrying boulders and goods, and drivers of passenger bus travelling from Kolkata and Siliguri are exempted from quarantining as per the health ministry’s quarantine criteria.

However, they are subjected to screening and they should observe self or home quarantine as far as possible, as per the criteria. The criteria would change depending on the situation of COVID-19.

Lyonpo also informed that there is no travel restriction for Bhutanese travelling via India, however, they would be subjected to screening if they are travelling from COVID-19 affected countries.

“They would be quarantined if they show any kind of COVID-19 symptoms at the Indian government’s health facilities for free,” Lyonpo said. “The Bhutanese travelling on transit through Delhi to Paro coming from the Middle East will not be quarantined unless they’ve symptoms.”

Three Bhutanese who were returning from Middle East countries are currently quarantined in Delhi.

Lyonpo said that the Indian government has allowed the entry of Bhutanese to India by air or land and urged Bhutanese to contact the nearest Bhutanese Embassy/Mission/Consulate or call the designated foreign ministry officials on their numbers given on the ministry’s website.

However, to travel on transit from India, it is advised to have a layover that is not more than 12 hours else, they would be quarantined. While travelling via Thailand, the layover should not be more than eight hours and passengers are required to download an AOT Airports application on their mobile phones.

“The passenger should fill up individual bio-data and present to the immigration, as this would help to contact the person in case a person in that flight tests positive,” Lyonpo said. “This is why we advise people to take direct flight as much as possible.”

If a person fails to comply or cooperate with the quarantining, he or she shall be liable for the offence of Criminal Nuisance as per Section 410 of the Penal Code (Amendment) Act 2011 and for the offence of obstruction of public service as per the Section 424 of the Penal Code 2004.

Meanwhile, the first batch of 23 quarantined people who had contact with the first COVID-19 patient on March 2 was released on March 17. Another nine Bhutanese were released yesterday. They were released after repeatedly testing negative for COVID-19.