Dian Septiari, Jakarta – Indonesia is closing its borders to foreign travelers from all around the world for the first two weeks of 2021, Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi announced on Monday, amid concerns over the discovery of a more infectious SARS-CoV-2 variant first detected in the United Kingdom.
Last week, scientists from the UK's New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (NERVTAG) discovered a new strain of the coronavirus that has been spreading rapidly in Britain, Reuters reports.
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the new variant, known as the B117 lineage, may be up to 70 percent more transmissible than the original disease, although there has yet to be evidence that it causes more severe illness or higher mortality.
This new strain has since been found in a number of European nations, Canada, Japan, Australia and Singapore.
"In response to these developments, a limited Cabinet meeting on Dec. 28 came to the decision to temporarily bar the entry of foreign nationals from all countries to Indonesia from Jan. 1 to 14, 2021," Retno told the press at the Presidential Palace in Jakarta on Monday.
Exceptions for foreigners due to arrive prior to Thursday, Dec. 31 have also been put in place, based on the latest regulations set up by the national COVID-19 task force.
They must adhere to strict health protocols that include presenting negative results of a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test taken at least 48 hours before departure to Indonesia, to be uploaded into the Indonesia Health Alert Card (eHAC) application.
Upon arrival, they will be required to take a reverse-transcriptase PCR test by the Indonesian authorities and be quarantined for five days at designated hotels if they test negative. Foreign travelers must take another RT-PCR test after the quarantine period and will only be allowed to continue their journey if results come back negative.
Retno said that citizens returning from abroad would still be allowed entry but that they were expected to follow the same rigorous procedures as foreigners, although their expenses would be covered by the government.
The decision to close its borders is just the second time since the COVID-19 outbreak spread through the country, as Indonesia continues seeing a steady rise in positive cases nine months into the pandemic.
The nation has recorded more than 719,000 confirmed cases and upwards of 21,000 deaths from the disease, according to the official tally as of Monday. The high positivity rate and a low testing capacity serve to indicate that the true scale of the crisis could be much bigger.
A more infectious strain of COVID-19 could prove catastrophic if adequate measures are not introduced.
The government had begun denying entry to foreign nationals from the UK since last week, as stipulated in an addendum to Circular No. 3/2020 on travel health protocols for the Christmas and New Year holidays during the COVID-19 pandemic.
National COVID-19 task force chief Doni Monardo previously said that up to 3,000 foreigners who entered Indonesia had tested positive for COVID-19.
Last week, Singapore became Indonesia's closest neighbor to confirm a case of the new COVID-19 strain. The patient is a 17-year-old Singaporean girl who had studied in the UK, The Straits Times reported.
While Singaporean authorities have assured that its measures were sufficient to control the spread of the virus, especially with the new strain still being transmitted via droplets and close contact, Indonesia's latest policy looks likely to pause the existing travel corridor arrangement that it has with the city state.
Indonesia has a travel arrangement called the Reciprocal Green Lane with Singapore that began on Oct. 26. The arrangement was established to facilitate urgent diplomatic missions and essential business trips.
Education and Culture Minister Nadiem Makarim was among the few Indonesian officials who traveled using this arrangement when he visited Singapore in early December.
In addition to Singapore, Indonesia has a travel corridor arrangement for essential business with the United Arab Emirates, South Korea and China.
With Monday's travel curbs in place, Retno said that only high-level official visits may be granted exceptions.
"Official visits at the ministerial level and above will be exempted from this temporary entry ban, but will be implemented with very strict health protocols," she said.