Apr 19, 2021 1:53 pm Ibrar Younas 353
● Age criteria for electronic tagging sparks concern ● Social media confusion ● ‘Uncertainty at Health Ministry’


Taken from this week's issue

THERE was confusion among expats this week over the launch of a new home quarantine system for arrivals that could lead to couples being split up because of their age.

On Monday the government unveiled its new “Stay Safe” electronic tagging system that aims to eventually end the current practice of placing people into quarantine hotels and other centres, which is costing the government 50 million TL a month. Ministers hope to make savings of “80 to 85 per cent” if the new system successfully rolled out.

As of Thursday, April 15, 167 people were being “tracked” at home with wristbands, according to Health Ministry figures. Home quarantine is currently only available to some groups of people, such as those with certain health conditions, pregnant women and children under the age of 12. People aged over 70 are also eligible for home quarantine, but it was not clear this week if a couple would be able to spend quarantine at home together if one spouse is over 70 and the other under 70. Senior health officials were unable to provide Cyprus Today with any clear answer about how such a situation would be handled. One source, who did not want to be named, said that the issue would be raised with Health Minister Ünal Üstel. Mr Üstel did not respond to a request for comment. 

The source also warned elderly expat couples planning to fly to the TRNC “not to pay attention to gossip that is posted online because it creates uncertainty and could lead people to believe something that does not exist”.

Cyprus Today contacted the Health Ministry helpline to ask about what would happen if a couple whose ages are either side of 70 come to the TRNC. The helpline operator said they could not provide an answer and that couples in such a situation should state that they are married when making an application for home quarantine, and that a decision on whether or not they will be allowed to stay at home together would be notified to them by the Health Ministry.

Frank Mann, 73, and his wife Andrea, 69, who are in Berlin, are planning to visit the TRNC in May. They own property in Lapta. 

Mr Mann said: “My wife and I have been residents in Lapta since 2013 but our attachment to Lapta already dates back to 1969, when we first visited this place.

“We left the TRNC in December 2019 with the intention to return to our home by the end of March 2020. Our flight had already been booked for March 30 [2020] but unfortunately Turkish Airlines had to suspend its international flights up to the end of July [2020]. . .We never expected to stay away from Lapta for a long period of time and we were ill-prepared for such a situation. . . Ever since, we have been hoping that the government would put in place a system where we could spend the necessary quarantine at home rather than in a hotel unknown to us. We do understand, however, why the government had to insist on strict rules for quarantine as too many people had dodged their obligations.

“Now we were happy to learn that there will again be a possibility for home quarantine, but as my wife will not turn 70 until August this year, I am worried that she will be confined alone in a hotel. 

“There is a lack of clarity or any proper communication about the rules. We cannot rely on gossip on social media. I will have my second coronavirus shot on May 3 and my wife has had her first shot, with the second due in mid-June.

“Who can advise us whether it will be possible for both of us to benefit from the home quarantine regulations?”

British Residents Society (BRS) head Peter Wilkins said the BRS is “in the process of seeking clarification from the Health Ministry over what happens if one spouse is over 70, and the other is under 70”.

He added: “We are also making enquiries as to why a person of any age cannot be included in the home quarantine system, even when they have had both vaccination doses.”

Mr Wilkins said the rules have not been sufficiently communicated to expats via the “proper channels” and that misinformation online has not helped the situation.

He stressed, however, that the implementation of the home quarantine system is a “positive step” aimed at allowing more people to come to North Cyprus “in a safer manner”.

The Foreign Residents (TFR) chairman Horst Gutowski told this paper: “The bracelet system that enables home quarantine is great. But . . . we would ask the Government to review the age criteria. . . The rules have not clarified what happens [if one member of a couple is over 70 and the other under 70] or what happens if there is a family visiting who have young children. The bracelet system should just be applied universally.”

The wristband system is being operated and monitored “24/7” by mobile phone company North Cyprus Turkcell, whose general manager Murat Küçüközdemir joined Prime Minister Ersan Saner, Finance Minister Dursun Oğuz, Public Works and Transport Minister Resmiye Canaltay, and Health Minister Ünal Üstel for its press launch on Monday.

“This is the first time ever that we have had private-public cooperation in the field of electronic transformation technology,” Mr Saner said. “We must take effective action to combat Covid-19, while also learning to live with it.”

Mr Saner said that the wristbands will initially be available for 1,700 people, which he said would be increased to 4,000 to allow more people to come to the country.

Mr Üstel said the system will enable people to stay at their own homes “without compromising any risks to health”. 

“Priority will be given to the elderly, families with children, and those with chronic illnesses,” he said. “Failure to adhere to home quarantine will be punishable with a fine of five times the national minimum wage.”

Mr Küçüközdemir explained that the smartphone application called “Güvende Kal” (Stay Safe) required to use the electronic tagging system can be downloaded from the App Store and Google Play. 

Passengers should download the app and use it to submit their details prior to coming to TRNC, Mr Küçüközdemir said. QR codes will be used to match both the Stay Safe digital bracelet to smart phones and the vehicle that arrivals will travel in to their quarantine location in. 

Individuals will be held liable to the conditions of a binding “follow-up information and consent form” to be signed at registration.

Mr Küçüközdemir said 150 North Cyprus Turkcell staff are monitoring the wristband and application home quarantine system “non-stop”. They will immediately inform police if an individual leaves their quarantine area, a wristband becomes damaged or the internet connection of a smartphone is interrupted. Users will also receive a warning notification on their phones. Smart phones must not run out of battery power and the phone’s battery level is monitored via a Bluetooth connection to the bracelet.

A North Cyprus Turkcell “field operation team” will be available at all hours in case of “possible malfunction and infringement”, as well as to perform “random house visits”. 

More information can be found via the website, by calling a helpline (0533 878 1024) and through the “Stay Safe” channel on Turkcell’s messaging app BİP.

“These bracelets are widely used in hospitals in Turkey and you can enter the shower with them. There aren’t any problems endured by daily use,” Mr Küçüközdemir said. 

Mr Üstel added that “municipalities and the police” will also be informed of quarantine locations and that “the neighbours of those people who go under home quarantine also have a responsibility”. 

A statement from the Health Ministry said that each person using the system must pay 750TL, which includes a 350TL deposit which is refunded when the bracelet is returned.