Seeking to prevent COVID-19 outbreak, Greenland grounds Christmas flights

“This not the time to be travelling,” health minister tells Greenlanders preparing to visit family for the holiday.

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Air Greenland’s Airbus 330 sits at a gate at the Copenhagen Airport, in Kastrup, Denmark in 2015. Greenland officials are halting some flights between Denmark and Greenland around Christmas in hopes of preventing an unmanageable COVID-19 outbreak. (Christopher Ziemnowicz / CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

Health officials in Greenland are urging people to forego Christmas travel plans, and even going so far as to halt all flights to and from the country in the days before the holiday in a bid to try to prevent an unmanageable outbreak of COVID-19 in the following weeks.

Greenland was already seeking to bring down a “worrisome” level of international travel, public health officials said.

“The number of travelers is still very high, and many of us still have a strong desire to see our friends and family at Christmas,” said Health Minister Anna Wangenheim on Wednesday. “That is perhaps why, despite our recommendations and the measures we have taken, we can see an increase in the number of travelers right now. To all of you, we have a clear message: don’t travel; wait to have guests.”

The government has ordered Air Greenland, the nationally controlled airline that operates the sole daily flight between Greenland and Denmark, to cancel flights between Dec. 20 and Dec. 22. Doing so will require anyone looking to travel to Greenland for Christmas to depart Denmark by December 19, which will allow them to undergo a five-day quarantine, the minimum length required, before the holiday.

Under Greenland’s current travel guidelines, anyone entering the country must test negative for COVID-19 before departure from Denmark. Upon arrival, they must self-quarantine for at least 14 days — or until they deliver a second negative test, taken no less than five days after arrival.

[As coronavirus surges in Europe, Greenland health authorities seek further border restrictions]

But with rates of COVID-19 in Denmark at their highest levels to date, public health authorities fear this may not be enough to keep the coronavirus out of the country.

“Testing isn’t going to identify them all, and we are concerned that we won’t be able to manage a large number of infected travelers coming in,” Henrik L. Hansen, the chief medical officer, said Wednesday.

Greenland currently has no known active cases of the COVID-19, but with 4,000 people already booked on flights from Greenland to Denmark (the only destination for flights leaving the country right now), in the week leading up to Christmas, and another 2,500 expected to travel to Greenland, the country faces the possibility of “scores” of new cases, which would far outstrip the health service’s capacity to treat them.

Greenlandic health minister Anna Wangenheim (screenshot KNR)

“Unfortunately there are a lot of people who live here and a lot of (Danes who work in Greenland’s civil service) who are going to travel to Denmark and stay there until after New Year’s,” Wangenheim said. “It is these people who worry us most. If they get infected and travel back to Greenland, we could see a lot people here getting infected.”

While travelers returning from Denmark after Christmas are the biggest concern for public health authorities, they also fear that people to traveling to Greenland for Christmas will break quarantine before delivering a second negative test and meet with other people for the holiday, which is celebrated on Dec. 24 in Greenland.

[Greenland reimposes traveler quarantines in a bid to remain coronavirus-free]

Concern for this happening stems from an incident in October, in which the most recent of the 18 people in Greenland to have had COVID-19, broke quarantine after arriving from Denmark. The individual subsequently tested positive for the illness, resulting in upwards of a hundred people, including members of the national assembly and a school class, being forced to isolate themselves.

By grounding some flights around Christmas, officials hope to avoid a repeat of that situation, but on a larger scale.

In order to make up for the cancelled flights, Air Greenland will add departures on December 19.