Paro airport will be treated like a high risk area like Phuentsholing (Photo Courtesy: DrukAsia.com)

After accepting lapses govt does extensive reviews and course correction around Paro Airport

On 18th of January the Prime Minister Dasho (Dr) Lotay Tshering came on air and accepted there have been major lapses and the mistakes have happened from the Paro airport, leading to the second outbreak.

He said the government has done its own review, but he did not assign accountability for the lapses to any agency or issue.

He said, “No single person can be blamed for the lapses. If any accountability has to be fixed or punishment given, then I will take the blame and the punishment.”

In the meantime, the government is already in the process of making changes and strengthening the system and Standard Operating Procedures around the receiving and picking up of passengers from the airport.

National COVID-19 Taskforce member and Foreign Minister Dr Tandi Dorji said that all the SOPs have been reviewed.

He said front liners around the airport, drivers, taxi drivers and high risk schools will be tested more regularly.

The Foreign Minister said that COVID-19 is an invisible enemy and it could creep in from anywhere. He said no person has willingly brought in the virus. The minister said that no specific agency or channel could be blamed though he said there were oversights which has been corrected and strengthened.

The minister said that one major change is that the whole Paro airport will be treated like a high risk area like Phuentsholing and it will be self contained with various measures. He said people working in and around the airport will be tested on a weekly basis.

He said that bus drivers who ferry passengers will also undergo frequent testing and there will also be more frequent and random testing for schools too.

Lyonpo said the strategy is that instead of waiting for things to happen the strategy is to pro actively test and detect something early on.

Another change is that instead of having school or city buses ferrying passengers like in the past there will now be dedicated buses carrying passengers to quarantine hotels.

There will also be a change in the management of the airport as Lyonpo said that Paro airport will now come under the purview of the Paro Dzongkhag Task Force headed by the Dzongda or the Incident Commander who will have full responsibility for it.

Earlier the MoH and Dzongkhag were involved after which the PMO stepped in and now the management is going back to the Dzongkhag.

Lyonpo said that an additional change is that there will now be dedicated Dessups who will look after the quarantine centers. Earlier Dessups were changed frequently and each new team had to be briefed and trained again.

A team under the National COVID-19 Taskforce had come up with various reviews and recommendations which has already been presented to the National Taskforce.

An official who is familiar with the team’s work, on the condition of anonymity, shared some of the review work and the changes that are coming up.

The official said the main problem is not with the quarantine guidelines as everything was there, but the problem really occurred in terms of a sense of complacency, non compliance and no monitoring.

Giving the example of buses he said that bus drivers were supposed to be cordoned off from the passengers and drivers were not supposed to mingle with them, but somehow there was no monitoring.

The committee is looking at transferring air passengers  directly to the quarantine centers and minimizing contact for which the committee will be talking to immigration and customs.

There will also have to be better social distancing at baggage handling and minimal contact.

Things which are already happening in the airport like hand washing and other safety protocol will be re-emphasized.

The committee is also thinking of appointing a focal responsible person among the air crew who will be accountable for two reasons. One is in terms of following safety protocol while in flight and the other is to ensure stricter compliance of the air crews quarantine in hotels while working.

There will also be a safety checklist for bus drivers to follow.

One of the areas that the committee identified requires more strengthening is in terms of manpower and also in terms of ensuring there is monitoring of quarantine hotels and monitoring at both the national and district level.

The official said that the PMO is still managing the overall logistics like transportation and quarantine and the MoH looks after technical support and backstopping, but now to ensure better coordination the Department of Disaster Management will be given an overall role as the pandemic is a disaster in its own right.

He said until the COVID-19 virus is there this arrangement will have to be put in place as quarantine centers will be required. Apart from better coordination there would also be accountability.

The official said that a challenge for having dedicated Dessups to manage the quarantine center is that it is a voluntary service and people are changed after every few months, however, now within Dessups there will be a dedicated quarantine management team.

At the national level, quarantine management will be given importance with a separate set up.

Apart from a more dedicated and overall professional set up the difference this time around is that a monitoring team will be set up from across agencies that will monitor and even audit quarantine centers, the airport, transport and at the Dzongkhag level.

The official said that one of the issues in the airport was a communication breakdown too as the Dzongkhag had thought that the Department of Air Transport would monitor everything.

In terms of the infectious 27th November 2020 flight the official said it cannot be said for sure that the infection spread in the flight. He said that given the epidemiology in India where there was a wide spread of the virus the people on the flight may have been infected from Kolkata itself. 

However, as a precaution the protocol inside the flights will be made stricter. One is that once you are seated you cannot move around in the plane.

The Cabinet Secretary Sangay Duba said that SOPs and Protocols have been developed. He said the DDM will take a lead role and there will be a separate inspection team.

The Technical Advisory Group (TAG) is playing an important role in strengthening the protocols and the system.

In response to a question from The Bhutanese on lessons learnt from the second outbreak in terms of strengthening Paro Airport logistics and protocols, the TAG team listed some major observations.

One is that all the frontline responders need to be placed in the containment centers and put in the quarantine after completing the duty. 

A mechanism for regular inspection and monitoring for compliance with the safety protocols needs to be established. 

There is a need to reinforce the mechanisms for safer transfer of passengers from airport to the quarantine facility. 

And finally safety protocols and SOPs of the transportation systems, quarantine facility and airport needs to be reviewed. 

TAG said that based on these recommendations, the required interventions and changes at the ground-level are being made.

Meanwhile the Opposition party Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT) as a part of its nine-point submission of suggestions to the government on 16th January pointed to airport quarantine protocol as one of the issues.

The Opposition party said that despite the highest attention to this aspect, lapses continue to occur especially on the front of International Airport quarantine procedures, due to which the second lockdown is widely believed to have been triggered.

The opposition recommended improving and strengthening the transportation and quarantine procedures, including revisiting the agencies to be involved in these logistics, and framing clear delineation and delegation of responsibilities.

The Bhutanese did two investigative stories bringing out various lapses at various levels that contributed to the second outbreak.

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