Soneva Covid-19 testing centre at Maafaru airport opens

A dedicated Covid-19 testing centre developed by resort operator Soneva at Maafaru airport in Noonu atoll was officially inaugurated Monday.

At an online ceremony Monday afternoon, health minister Abdulla Ameen and CEO of ADK Hospitals Ahmed Nashid inaugurated the centre. Soneva’s CEO and founder Sonu Shivdasani, and General Manager of Velaa Private Island, an ultra-luxury resort in the Noonu atoll, also participated in the event.

“Maafaru testing centre could not have come at a more crucial time. As the country gears to reopen borders testing for Covid-19 becomes even more critical. In addition to testing guests and staff, the facility at Maafaru can cater to the testing needs of the local population,” minister Ameen said.

“I would like to thank Soneva, Velaa and ADK for this remarkable gesture of corporate social responsibility.”

The new testing centre was built in just 30 days and offers tourists and locals the ability to get a Covid-19 test result in less than 24 hours.

The facility uses the Roche Lifecycle 96 machine, and can process up to 700 tests per day. The centre will be operated by ADK Hospitals, and funded by Soneva and Velaa.

Soneva plans to test all guests and employees prior to their arrival at Soneva Fushi and Soneva Jani resorts.

Guests will be asked to remain in the privacy of their villa, which comes with its own private pool and private beach, for a maximum of 24 hours until the test results are received. If the result is negative, they will be free to leave their rooms and carry on as normal.

Although the Maldivian government has not mandated coronavirus tests for tourists, Soneva believes that by testing everyone who comes onto their resorts, they can create safe, virus-free islands where people can relax and enjoy their holiday without having to worry about Covid-19.

In addition to funding the running of the facility, Soneva and Velaa have donated 2,500 test kits to the Maldivian government to help in the national efforts against the coronavirus outbreak.

Speaking at the inauguration ceremony, Shivdasani thanked the honourable attendees for their presence. He also gave special thanks to ADK CEO Nashid and Fardeen Mohamed, the Chief Operating Officer at ADK, who had played an important role in obtaining the test machine and all the related equipment.

Shivdasani also thanked the Soneva team members that were involved in this remarkable achievement of obtaining equipment and building a laboratory within just 30 days.

“My team and I conferred with many infectious disease experts from around the world whilst we composed our Covid-19 response. We consider testing a crucial aspect of our approach. Our conversations with these leading experts, who are at the front line of the battle against Covid confirmed that this virus is less virulent than past viruses including the severe flu that the world was inflicted by 2018,” he said.

“Ironically, it is the fact that it is much milder than past severe viruses and flu’s that has brought the world to a standstill. Because it is less virulent, the initial signs of infection that usually oblige someone to naturally self-isolate and lead others to stay away, is absent. Covid has had many asymptomatic carriers and as a result, the R rate of this virus is substantially higher than viruses that have come before. The best method to reduce the R rate is to test, test, and test again.”

Soneva currently runs two resorts in the Maldives: Soneva Fushi in Baa atoll and Soneva Jani in Noonu atoll. The world-leading luxury resort operator also operates luxury yacht Soneva in Aqua in Maldives, and Soneva Kiri resort in Thailand.

Despite a lab being established at the Maafaru airport, tests will be voluntary.

When the Maldives reopens its borders on July 15, there will be no mandatory quarantine or testing on arrival. Tourists will only have to complete a health declaration form.

But visitors with symptoms of the Covid-19 respiratory disease caused by the novel coronavirus or those travelling with someone who has similar symptoms will be tested at their expense.

Meanwhile, airport operator Island Aviation Services (IAS) is readying the Maafaru airport for international arrivals.

The Abdu Dhabi-funded international airport was specifically developed to cater to high net worth individuals who want to arrive there directly and travel to one of the ultra-luxury resorts in the atoll for their holiday.

But the airport lacked the required equipment, as well as customs and immigration capabilities to handle international arrivals.

Aviation authorities in Maldives are exploring the possibility of allowing private jets to directly land at airports other than the main airport, as the island nation anticipates luxury travellers to be the first to visit when it reopens its borders.

Velana International Airport is the main port of entry for private jets at the moment, but once cleared they can fly to other airports that can cater to private jets.

The government has not singled out the other airports being considered for private jet landing, but it is likely that the Maafaru airport will be permitted to cater to jets.

The coronavirus outbreak has hit the Maldivian economy hard, as travel restrictions and other preventive measures affect the country’s lucrative tourism industry, which contributes the bulk of the island nation’s state revenue and foreign reserves.

Before the pandemic, the government had been bullish about tourism prospects, targeting two million, high-spending holidaymakers this year after last year’s record 1.7 million.

However, only 382,760 tourists visited the Maldives before the country closed its borders on March 27. It was a 40.8 per cent decline over the 646,092 that visited the Maldives from January to March last year.

With arrival numbers falling, several resorts across the Maldives had been closed.

Tourism has been the bedrock of the Maldives’ economic success. The $5 billion-dollar economy grew by 6.7 per cent in 2018 with tourism generating 60 per cent of foreign income.

However, the government is at present projecting a possible 13 per cent economic contraction this year — an estimated $778 million hit.

On March 8, Maldives reported its first cases of the novel coronavirus, as two hotel employees tested positive for Covid-19 at a luxury resort in the archipelago.

Eighteen more cases — all foreigners working or staying resorts and liveaboard vessels except five Maldivians who had returned from abroad — were later identified.

A six-case cluster of locals, detected in capital Male on April 15, confirmed community transmission of the coronavirus. Several more clusters have since been identified, bringing the total number of confirmed case in the Maldives to 2,731.

Thirteen deaths have been reported and 2,284 have made full recoveries.

The Maldives announced a state of public health emergency on March 12, the first such declaration under a recent public health protection law.

The public health emergency declaration allowed the government to introduce a series of unprecedented restrictive and social distancing measures, including stay-at-home orders in capital Male and its suburbs, a ban on inter-island transport and public gatherings across the country, and a nationwide closing of government offices, schools, colleges and universities.

Non-essential services and public places in the capital such as gyms, cinemas and parks were also shut.

Restaurants and cafes in the capital were asked to stop dine-in service and switch to takeaway and delivery.

A nationwide shutdown of all guesthouses, city hotels and spa facilities located on inhabited islands was also ordered.

These measures allowed authorities to contain the outbreak.

The restrictions are now being eased in phases, with the third phase measures now active.

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