Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis said yesterday that protocol was “breached” when six Americans, who are Bahamas residents, were permitted to land on New Providence and quarantine at home last week.
The Americans brought with them 2,500 swabs for COVID-19 testing, which The Nassau Guardian confirmed were valued at $11,250.
“There was an incident last week involving some residents who flew by private aircraft to New Providence and brought COVID-19 test kits with them,” Minnis said in a national address.
“The protocol for allowing Bahamians and legal residents to enter the country at this time was breached last week.
“I have now been informed that instead of the stated two permanent residents who were allowed to disembark and remain in the country, that it was actually six permanent residents, who are all related.
“All of these individuals have tested negative for COVID-19 and will remain under a mandatory 14-day quarantine.”
The Guardian understands that the permanent residents were given verbal approval to disembark on New Providence before leaving the United States on Wednesday.
The Guardian also understands that the flight was expected to arrive in The Bahamas two weeks prior, however, issues at the Bahamas Civil Aviation Authority (BCAA) caused a delay.
Last week, this paper revealed the permanent residents were allowed to enter the country and quarantine in their home during a strict border closure that has left Bahamian citizens stranded abroad.
Bahamians abroad, who are seeking to get home, are required to test for COVID-19 prior to coming to The Bahamas. However, the Americans were not required to be tested.
The prime minister said a week ago that those returning would have to be quarantined at a facility guarded by Royal Bahamas Defence Force officers. Yesterday, he said Bahamians will be given the option to also quarantine at home.
In the wake of the revelation regarding the private flight, Minister of Health Dr. Duane Sands said an exception was made for the permanent residents, who brought in 2,500 swabs for COVID-19 testing. He said they did not show any symptoms of COVID-19 when they landed, but were tested for the virus the following day.
“I made the decision to let the couple disembark,” Sands told reporters on Thursday.
He added, “The decisions were made on the spot. I take full responsibility for it. If we had to do it again, perhaps we may have done a few things slightly different.”
While noting that there is “no question” that Sands “misspoke”, Attorney General Carl Bethel told The Guardian only the director general of BCAA is permitted to give authorization for someone to disembark an aircraft during this time.
When asked whether Sands had the legal authority to make such an authorization, Bethel said, “Health, when called upon, advises DGCA (director general of civil aviation).”
He added, “The decision is that of DGCA.”
Bethel added, “That is how the structure works and has been working. That’s how Bahamians have been authorized to travel inter-island for health issues (non-COVID) like pregnancy: when mothers in the third trimester must come to Nassau to give birth.
“That’s how essential workers fly around the islands to repair critical infrastructure. That’s how permission to leave The Bahamas by air — stranded tourists, etc. — [is] handled.
“That’s how permissions, etc. That’s how Bahamians will shortly be permitted to return home.”
Captain Charles Beneby, the director general of civil aviation, categorically denied authorizing the disembarkment of the permanent residents from the aircraft.
“I gave no such approval,” he told The Guardian.
Beneby declined to make any further comment.
Documents obtained by The Guardian note that former Minister of Tourism Obie Wilchcombe connected the government with the permanent residents, and indicate that the flight was supposed to carry cargo only.
The documents indicate that no passengers were initially expected to disembark in The Bahamas.
However, when reached yesterday, Wilchcombe denied that that was the case.
Asked if he knew passengers would be on the plane, Wilchcombe replied, “I did know because they had gone to get it (swabs) and bring it back… I didn’t see the controversy developing like that because I thought they were just trying to make an effort to help.”
He added, “It was never quid pro quo.”
Wilchcombe said he reached out to government officials “about two Thursdays ago”.
The prime minister said the minister of health will release a statement addressing the matter today.