Coronavirus: UAE steps up virus checks at airports and warns against travel abroad

Passengers were told they may face tests on arrival and possible quarantine, while Emiratis and residents were urged against leaving the country

Latest: Follow live developments as coronavirus spreads

Emiratis and expats were urged to avoid foreign travel as airports stepped up checks on arriving passengers.

Returning residents may be tested at the airport and - depending on their travel history - be placed in 14-day quarantine at home, the Ministry of Health said. Tourists from a range of countries, including high-risk outbreak areas, can also expect checks.

Basic tests involve walking past thermal scanners, which allow medical officials to spot raised body temperature, potentially caused by fever. Some airports use handheld temperature scanners placed on a passenger's forehead, which works in the same way and takes moments.

If a person does travel, there will be preventative measures at the point of re-entry

Ministry of Health

Those found with high temperatures may be subject to a nasal swab, which is then placed into a solution. Passengers may be held back until the results are ready. Any travellers who test positive would be taken to a medical facility and monitored.

In a video interview with local media, Dr Manal Al Taryam, a senior official at Dubai Health Authority, said "all passengers" are thermal scanned discreetly as they walk through the airport to ensure "everyone entering Dubai" is virus-free.

In other developments on Thursday, the Ministry of Health confirmed a new case of the virus in the UAE, in a 17-year-old Emirati student.

The ministry said the patient was receiving medical care but showed no symptoms.

Earlier in the day parents said children at Indian High School, the largest school in the Gulf, were tested as a precaution.

The authorities have not identified where an Indian pupil, 16, studied but on Wednesday night said she contracted the virus from a parent who had been abroad.

Iran limited travel between major cities amid more than 3,500 cases and at least 107 deaths, while Italy, where about 3,000 people are infected, closed schools and universities for two weeks.

The latest travel advice from the UAE authorities came ahead of a month-long school closure from Sunday.

The statement read: "The Ministry of Health and Prevention has urged citizens and residents to avoid travelling abroad due to the spread of Covid-19 in multiple countries.

"Those who travel may face preventative measures upon their return to the UAE - at the discretion of competent authorities - including undergoing medical checks at the airport, and a 14-day quarantine.

"Those who test positive will be transferred to a designated health facility for treatment and quarantine to ensure their safety and to avoid contact with others."

Officials said they were taking a series of measures to prevent the spread of the virus, which has been confirmed in nearly 30 patients in the UAE.

“Among the most prominent of these efforts is the distribution of the medical guide to health and governmental facilities and the private sector, in addition to other sectors such as education, borders and tourism, and the provision of isolation rooms in all the hospitals, as well as placing thermal detectors on all air, land and sea ports,” the ministry said.

Earlier, on Wednesday, Dubai Airports officials said seven gates were set aside to handle oncoming flights and screen passengers travelling from four high-risk destinations.

All passengers arriving at Dubai International Airport and Dubai World Central from Beijing, Syria, Lebanon and Italy will be checked using thermal screening, said Damian Ellacott, vice president of operations at the Airport Operations Control Centre.

It is not clear if the list of countries has expanded since the announcement on Thursday.

Travel agents cancel trips as residents stay home

Concern over the spread of covid-19 has led to a surge in holiday cancellations among UAE residents.

Even before the government's advice on Thursday, travel agents were cancelling or re-booking overseas trips for local residents.

“Right now we are caught up processing refunds and processing date change requests from clients,” said Fardan Haneef, operations manager at Deira Travel and Tourist Agency, which has 14 branches.

“The virus outbreak has impacted both leisure and business traffic.

“A lot of people have altered their holiday plans and have opted to stay in the UAE to safeguard themselves.

“Those that are opting for date changes are looking to travel in the next few months, around August time.”

Agents said there were relatively few cancellations when the virus was contained to China, but the spread has predictably led to caution, with 77 countries now impacted by the virus.

Mr Haneef said the majority of its clientele come from South Asia and have mainly cancelled travel plans to "Europe, India, Thailand and Saudi Arabia".

Most airlines that cancelled flights or adhered to government-imposed travel restrictions offered refunds or date changes, he said.

If the airline didn't cancel the flight, the passenger has had to bear the penalties for cancelling trips voluntarily

Fardan Haneef, Deira Travel and Tourist Agency

“However, if the airline didn't cancel the flight, the passenger has had to bear the penalties for cancelling trips voluntarily,” he said.

“We have had multiple instances where small and large group bookings have been cancelled by corporate clients.

“One group, that had booked an all-expenses trip for 270 members to India, cancelled the booking and will proceed with the trip after things settle down.

“We had another small group of 21 people who had to drop their plans for Umrah after Saudi Arabia’s recent announcement to temporarily halt pilgrimage plans.”

At Premium Choice Travels in Dubai's Jumeirah Lakes Towers, staff were cancelling school trips.

“We arrange and book a lot of educational trips for big groups,” a representative said.

“We had to 50 pupils booked in to fly to Manchester in the UK in April and we had to cancel it.

“The virus outbreak has had a big impact on our daily work and we are scrambling to speak to our partner hotels and airlines to arrange refunds or date changes.”

On Thursday, just a day before she was due to fly to France for an eight-day skiing break, Abu Dhabi resident Amanda Smith, 40, cancelled the trip.

“I would have travelled but my friend got cold feet after the latest Ministry of Health advisory,” she said.

“The idea that we would possibly have to face a 14-day home quarantine on our return to the UAE put us off.

“My friend is a business owner and if she can’t go to work it could significantly impact her economic state.”

Thankfully, Ms Smith, a project manager, said her friend took out travel insurance prior to the coronavirus outbreak.

"We managed to get a full refund on the accommodation booked," she said.

“We also secured staff flight tickets from our friend, which were easily refundable.

“The fact that everything was reimbursable was a big factor in our decision to cancel.”

Updated: March 6, 2020 12:51 PM

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