THE Mayor of Islington has flown home after weeks stranded in Somaliland – and has told how she was shocked by the “lax” arrivals system that she found on her return.
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Rakhia Ismail, the first Somaliland-born woman to become a mayor in the UK, had left for a family visit in March when shops and restaurants were still open.
Last week, she was finally able to secure what she said was an “extortionately expensive” flight back into Heathrow, seeing London’s lockdown for the first time.
“From the moment we landed, to clearance through customs and collecting luggage, it was like 10 minutes,” she said.
“Nobody checked our temperatures, nobody was tested and I think that is irresponsible.”
The issue of how people arriving in the country are checked has remained a constant source of debate during the coronavirus outbreak.
The government said it would start requiring people to isolate for 14 days after arrival from next month, although “air bridges” may be in place between countries with low infection rates.
Ministers have faced questions as to why more has not been done to stop people potentially bringing the virus into the UK.
Cllr Ismail said: “When I arrived in Somaliland weeks ago we were having our temperatures checked and they were asking if we had been to Italy or China because they were the dangerous countries at that time. None of that was being asked here.
“In a small country that is not even recognized on this planet, they were taking it more seriously than the UK.”
Her two-week holiday turned into two-and-a-half months of being stranded on the north-west of the Horn of Africa as flights ground to a halt and the lockdown in the UK set in.
As the virus spread here, with at least 35,000 people dying since the outbreak began, there have been just a handful of deaths in Somaliland – which declared independence from Somalia in 1991 but has not been internationally recognized.
Cllr Ismail was finally able to come back on an Ethiopian Airlines flight on Friday.
She told the Tribune: “It was shocking coming back to the UK. Really, I was completely shocked.
“You hear the stories and the news, but to live it and see it physically…
“When I left in March, before lockdown, there was just some worry about a handful of cases and the place was full of life with the usual hustle and bustle.”
She added: “Then I arrive at Heathrow and it is a ghost town. And so is London. I don’t know how you guys have lived like this.”
The mother-of-four has decided to quarantine herself for two weeks at her home.
Airline bosses have said a mandatory period of self-isolation in the coming months would devastate the industry.
Others have raised questions over how rules could be enforced.
While she was in Hargeisa, the capital of Somaliland, Cllr Ismail met with the mayor and attended the government’s Covid-19 committee meetings.
“Every day I was being told about what it was like in the UK, people in Somaliland are always watching the news,” she said. “I loved going back to my second home and seeing my family and friends, but I missed my children so much.
“That was the longest I have ever spent away from them.” She added: “I was ecstatically happy and thankful to see my children and my husband when I landed back. It is hard to describe in words. I am just forever grateful to God to see them again.”
Cllr Ismail had been due to step down as mayor on May 14, with deputy mayor Troy Gallagher due to take over, but the annual full council meeting and robing ceremony was postponed during the lockdown and her stint has been extended.
Full details on how the air travel quarantine may work are yet to be announced. Prime minister Boris Johnson said in a statement on easing lockdown restrictions: “It depends on all of us – the entire country – to follow the advice, to observe social distancing, and to keep that R down. And to prevent re-infection from abroad, I am serving notice that it will soon be the time – with transmission significantly lower – to impose quarantine on people coming into this country by air.”
“R” refers to the reproduction rate of the virus in the UK.
The Tribune approached Heathrow and the Foreign Office for comment but they had not responded as we went to press.
Earlier this week, however, Heathrow chief executive John Holland-Kaye said new thermal-imaging scanners would be trailed at Terminal 2 in a bid to screen passengers who may be suffering from a fever.
A Public Health England spokesperson said: “PHE has offered to work with London Heathrow airport to help design and evaluate a limited trial of temperature screening to help clarify the evidence for it in the UK setting. This will help to inform the UK response going forward.
“The UK has not introduced temperature checks at airports as they hold little clinical value as advised by the government’s expert advisory committee, SAGE.
“Expert advice is that clinical entry screening would detect a very small number of cases.”