The closure of four crossing points last Saturday, in what the Government said would be a one-week temporary precaution against coronavirus outbreak, will be extended until Monday, the National Council agreed on Thursday.
A potential further extension of the closing of the Ledra Street, Astromeritis, Deryneia, and Lefka crossings, will be evaluated on Monday by Cabinet.
In statements at the Presidential Palace following the National Council meeting, Health Minister Constantinos Ioannou said the decision to retain the four checkpoints closed until Monday was taken on Wednesday by an inter-Ministerial Committee, established last week in view of effectively preventing a pandemic on island.
"The decision to suspend the operation of four crossings was taken due to limited availability of medical staff to carry out checks at all crossings"
Ioannou, who had attended to brief National Council members on coronavirus protection measures being taken by the Government, said the sole aim of the checkpoint closures is the protection of public health on both sides of the island.
Ioannou also explained that "the decision to suspend the operation of four crossings was taken due to limited availability of medical staff to carry out checks at all crossings", which the Government has decided to boost at the remaining operational checkpoints.
He said there was a limited expression of interest in response to the Ministry’s call for a procurement of medical services from the private sector, with the Ministry deciding to extend the call to public sector medical staff who would work overtime at checkpoints.
“The interest received could respond to the needs of three crossing points and that is why we took the decision,” the Minister explained.
Brushing off intense criticism of the move, stemming from civil society, politicians, organizations, and most notably from the Turkish Cypriot leader Mustafa Akinci who asserted on Wednesday that motives for shutting checkpoints did not include coronavirus concerns, Ioannou said:
“When the alert over coronavirus ends and checkpoints open, what will the response be by all of those accusing the Government of having ulterior motives in closing the checkpoints?”
“We’re dealing with public health, and we need to take measures, however harsh and non-desirable they may be for some,” Ioannou said.
UNFICYP expresses concern over ongoing disruption
On Thursday, the peacekeeping force issued a statement said that while it supports all effective measures to address any potential public health emergency, it is imperative for the two sides to coordinate closely in order to provide a comprehensive response.
In this respect, the role of the bi-communal Technical Committee on Health is critical and should be utilized to the fullest, it is noted.
Moreover, UNFICYP said the opening of the crossings since 2003 has allowed Cypriots freedom of movement across the island, contributing to a return to normal conditions and facilitating contact and interaction.
It remains essential that the sides maintain the dialogue and coordination they have displayed in mutually agreeing to the opening of the crossings, UNFICYP said.
Responding to questions by journalists regarding the UNFICYP announcement, the Health Minister said “it was not placed before the National Council,” adding that “it does not exactly criticize the Government. My reading of it brought different conclusions.”
Ioannou added that the Bicommunal Technical Committee on Health “has an explicitly advisory role,” asserting that “we [the Government of the Republic of Cyprus] take political decisions, we are responsible for the protection of public health, and we will be called to respond when something is implemented correctly or wrongly, and not the Bicommunal Committee.”
Coronavirus measures in place discussed among National Council
Ioannou said that following an evaluation of the situation on both the local and international level, all National Council members expressed their content over the measures being taken by the Republic of Cyprus.
Ioannou said that so far, the Institute of Neurology and Genetics has carried out tests on 49 persons, all of whom tested negative for coronavirus.
Responding to a question on thermal imaging cameras, Ioannou said two devices have been installed to the island’s airports, noting that the Ministry has launched a procedure to obtain ten cameras to be installed at crossing points.
Ioannou added that the process is stalled as experts say thermal imaging cameras in open spaces have a large margin for error and the Ministry will clarify the issue before ordering additional cameras.
He also noted that due to global overdemand, the cameras could not be delivered before April 10.
Asked whether the Government will be asking pensioners who had worked as medical professionals to return to work to cover current heightened needs, as has been done in other countries, Ioannou said that the measure will likely been evaluated.
“There are lots of matters in need of evaluation. We must have faith in the measures we are already taking,” Ioannou said.