Lebanon’s government agreed yesterday to facilitate the return of Lebanese citizens abroad starting on 5 April, Information Minister Manal Abdel Samad announced in a statement.
Foreign Minister Nassif Hitti told local broadcaster Al-Jadeed yesterday that approximately 20,000 Lebanese abroad have already registered to return.
Citizens were asked to register their desire to return at local embassies and consulates after the government ordered a nationwide shutdown on 15 March as part of measures to combat the spread of the disease.
The government’s expat policy, which had initially stipulated that citizens could not return until after 12 April when the extended national shutdown is set to end, drew criticism from political leaders.
Parliament Speaker and Amal Movement leader, Nabih Berri, threatened to suspend his minister’s participation in the country’s cabinet if it did not act to bring Lebanese stranded abroad home during the pandemic.
Other leaders, including Lebanese Forces Head Samir Geagea and Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, echoed Berri’s call for swift repatriation.
In the cabinet session on Tuesday, Prime Minister Hassan Diab pledged to ensure the safe return of expatriates, saying that “we cannot bear any faltering step, and none of the political forces can bear having on its conscience the spread of the [virus] and the collapse of the health system.”
Diab added that strict measures would be imposed to prevent returnees from spreading the disease.
Information Minister Samad echoed the statement, adding that all passengers would be screened before boarding flights to Lebanon, and on the planes will be separated by an empty seat. Returnees will also be asked to wear masks and gloves while travelling.
According to local news outlet An-Nahar, “medical check-ups and quick tests will also be held for returnees and there are talks over finding them obligatory quarantine centres through renting hotels or large complexes for [the] period of two weeks that follows their arrival in Beirut.”
Samad added that the cabinet may make changes to the returns procedure after discussions on Thursday but stressed that priority will be given to the elderly, those who require medical attention, and individuals on short visas.
According to An-Nahar, returnees will be asked to cover the cost of their flight, which will be operated by the state-owned Middle East Airlines (MEA).
Beirut’s Rafic Hariri International Airport, which has been shuttered since 18 March, is set to reopen over the weekend to allow the return of Lebanese stranded abroad via MEA flights.
Lebanon is now into the third week of a nationwide lockdown to stem the spread of coronavirus, though thousands have flouted government orders. Several have visited banks in efforts to collect monthly salaries and taken to the streets to demand compensation for lost work.
To date, Lebanon’s health ministry has reported 479 cases, including 37 recoveries and 12 deaths from coronavirus.