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Covid-19: Turkey's data submission fails to remove it from UK travel red list

Turkish officials criticise UK's inconsistent approach and warn of damaging impact on Turkey's tourism sector
A nurse prepares to administer the Sinovac vaccine in the village of Oguzlar, 100km from Ankara, on 8 July 2021 (AFP)
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Last month's decision by the UK to keep Turkey on its Covid-19 travel red list has angered Turkish officials, who point to lower infection and death rates in the country compared with others on the less-restrictive amber list.

The UK Department of Transport's traffic-light system regulates entry into the country via ports and airports, with countries on the red list subject to the tightest restrictions and quarantine requirements.

In the past 90 days, Turkey has submitted genome data for over 50,000 Covid cases - as required by London - making it the third most proficient data-sharing country worldwide during this period, according to an open-source database

Following the upload of data on the Gisaid (Global Initiative on Sharing Avian Influenza Data) system, where countries transparently share their knowledge on the variants of the Covid cases and their specifics, Turkish officials expected that London would remove Turkey from the red list in August. However, for reasons that are as yet unclear, this did not happen, and Turkish officials now fear that the country's tourism sector - which is heavily reliant on British tourists - could end up being severely damaged as a result.

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 A UK Department of Transport spokesperson said in a written response to Middle East Eye that the UK recognised Turkey’s recent efforts to upload sequences to Gisaid.

“However, these are mainly historical data. Stable, regular feeds of data are required to be able to assess trends over time,” the spokesperson said.

While the majority of the cases shared by Ankara were within the past 90 days, a BBC Turkish report indicated that the share of the data provided by Turkey on the total number of Covid-19 cases in the past 30 days ranked Turkey better than a number of amber- and green-list countries, such as Poland, the Netherlands, Norway, Croatia and Italy.

After further inquiries on the subject, a spokesperson for the UK Department of Health said that the UK uses a “range of data sources” to make its decision on the red list, including from Gisaid, the World Health Organization, and official reports from host government websites.

“Many countries and territories have limited genomic sequencing and variant assessment or do not publish their data, and therefore surveillance for variants of concern is challenging,” the spokesperson told MEE.

Turkish Health Minister Fahrettin Koca earlier this week told BBC Turkish that Ankara’s datasets were up to date.

“We have entered 50,000 data to the system and continued to submit more cases every day,” Koca said. “The UK opened its doors to the countries that cannot even analyse the [Covid] data, but not to Turkey."

Ahmet Han, a UK business visa holder, told MEE he was concerned that he will lose his residency because he is stuck in Turkey.

“I cannot travel back and forth to Turkey, where I also have a company, because I will need to be quarantined at a hotel for 11 days every time I arrive in London,” he said. “I don’t really understand why Turkey is on the red list while others who have a worse track record, such as India, are on the amber list."

Pfizer data not recognised

Other Turkish citizens have complained that the UK does not recognise the Turkish vaccination data on the Pfizer jabs, which are given in the country.

Muge told MEE that she had received her first Pfizer shot in Turkey, and yet the NHS decided not to recognise her vaccination record.

“Now I’m required to get two additional doses to be officially declared vaccinated,” she said. “The UK’s decision to not recognise Turkish vaccination records make people’s lives really hard.”

The European Union, on the other hand, included Turkish Covid-19 certificates in its system last month, allowing quarantine-free travel to Turkish citizens who have had two jabs of the Pfizer or Sinovac vaccines in applicable countries.

The UK Department of Transport spokesperson said London will offer further engagement between senior medical officials and Turkey’s senior health advisers in the coming weeks.

“This is in part to further understand the strategies employed by Turkey, their understanding of the pandemic, and establish stable and long-term access to the outcomes of Turkey in-country genomic surveillance and sequencing,” the spokesperson added.