- SAPM on Health Dr Faisal Sultan highlights country's track record of managing Covid-19
Pakistan has responded to the United Kingdom's decision to retain it on the 'red list' as it announced a travel update, sharing its data on its coronavirus response, testing rates, genomic surveillance and other efforts being taken to stabilise the spread of the virus.
In a letter addressed to the UK's secretary of state for health, shared by Federal Minister for Human Rights Shireen Mazari on Twitter, Pakistan's Special Assistant to the Prime Minister on Health Dr Faisal Sultan said that UK's decision to retain Pakistan on its red list while moving other regional countries to the amber list has been received with dismay.
Dr Sultan pointed out that Pakistan's efforts in controlling the novel Covid-19 virus have been recognised by the World Health Organization and the United Nations General Assembly. The World Economic Forum also celebrated 'Pakistan Strategy Day' to endorse Pakistan's strategy of handling the pandemic and the economy, the SAPM said.
Last week, the UK government updated its travel rules, promoting India along with Bahrain, Qatar and the UAE to the amber list while keeping Pakistan on its red list.
The decision received widespread criticism from Pakistan as well as British parliamentarians who said it reeked of discrimination. However, UK authorities responded by saying that the travel advisory is based on scientific data, and had nothing to do with political factors. UK senior health official Jo Churchill in a letter explained the government's decision, citing the lack of testing data as one of the reasons for retaining Pakistan on the list.
In response, Dr Sultan said that Pakistan has no interest in allowing its nationals who pose a health risk to travel abroad. He added that at times those travelling to the UK with a negative PCR test are found to be Covid-19 positive on their arrival, adding that "similar observations have been seen in travellers from the UK".
"In Pakistan, the combination of a deteriorating epidemiological situation, combined with low testing rates and limited genomic surveillance, presents a high risk that an outbreak of a new variant, or existing VoC [variant of concern], will not be identified before it is imported to the UK," Churchill had said.
Responding to her statement, the SAPM said that his team has reviewed the available information that became the basis of the UK's decision. He pointed out that numbers alone, without context, can be deceptive when looking at a country's track record of managing the epidemic.
Sharing a table comparing key indicators from Pakistan and some other countries in the region, the SAPM said that at the time of addition to the red list, Pakistan had very low numbers as compared to India, Iran and Iraq on the list.
While referring to testing rates, the SAPM said that Pakistan conducts PCR tests agreed-upon national algorithms, that is for those displaying symptoms and contact tracing, adding that this makes accurate and timely data inputs.
“We feel that the number of tests being done are a large enough sample size to be a sensitive and accurate barometer of the epidemic and the number, especially when seen with the percentage positivity rate, has accurately reflected the rise and fall of all the waves seen so far,” Sultan wrote.
Speaking on genomic surveillance, the SAPM agreed that Pakistan has limitations. He highlighted that so far 854 samples have been sequenced during July and August 2021 and the details have been shared with World Health Organisation (WHO) regularly.
"However, to introduce genomic sequencing as a performance measure and cite it as a reason to deny travel from Pakistan appears to introduce an unnecessarily larger metric," the SAPM said.
"It is also unclear as to what level of genomic surveillance is deemed as being enough and whether all countries are being subjected to the metric."
While talking about Pakistan's efforts in controlling the pandemic, Dr Sultan said that vaccinations remain its core strategy, adding that daily inoculation has exceeded one million doses and that the country aims to vaccinate 100 million people by end of December.
The SAPM proposed a three-pronged approach which includes valid proof of having received a WHO-approved vaccine, a PCR test (72 hours prior to departure) and a rapid antigen test at the airport and pre-departure.
Earlier, British MP Yasmin Qureshi, Chair of the All Parties Parliamentary Group on Pakistan (APPG), said that despite Pakistan not having any variants of concern, it remains on the red list, adding that in comparison India, from where the Delta variant of the coronavirus originated from, has been promoted to amber list.
Bradford West MP Naz Shah also expressed her reservations, saying that this was not the first time that the UK had exhibited "callous behaviour" when dealing with the quarantine traffic light system.
In April, the UK government put Pakistan as well as India, Bangladesh, Kenya and the Philippines on the red list of countries.