JAKARTA (Reuters) - Two weeks after Indonesia banned air and sea travel to contain the spread of the coronavirus, the transport ministry has confirmed that flights and public transport will conditionally resume.
The ban, which came into effect on April 23, was scheduled to run until the end of May, but on Friday the transport ministry confirmed what has been criticised by civil society groups as a “confusing” policy backflip.
Those who work in security, defence and health services, or have emergency health reasons, will be allowed to travel if they have tested negative for the novel coronavirus and have a letter from their employer, the ministry told Reuters.
Migrant workers going home will also be allowed to travel.
“Operations will be limited and only for passengers who have been declared healthy and whose special interests are supported with documentation,” said Adita Irawati, a spokesman for the transport ministry.
Garuda Indonesia resumed domestic flights on Thursday, while Lion Air, Wings Air and Batik Air, all members of the Lion Air group, are scheduled to resume domestic flights on Sunday.
The government of the world’s largest Muslim-majority country had come under fire from some officials and health experts for being slow in announcing a ban on people travelling for the Eid al-Fitr holiday at the end of Ramadan, when traditionally millions head back to hometowns and villages.
There are fears mass movements would rapidly spread the virus across archipelago, including to remote areas ill-equipped to handle a health crisis. The end of Ramadan is on around May 23.
The ministry defended its policy revision saying that travel at the end of Ramadan remains banned, although there are concerns about how well the ban might be enforced.
On Friday, a coalition of civil society groups criticised inconsistent and confusing messaging on social restrictions, accusing the government of “prioritising the economy over the rights to public health”.
Despite only mixed evidence the government has flattened the COVID-19 curve, or slowed the rate of new infections, it has appeared eager to resume economic activity and ease social restrictions.
This week, Finance Minister Sri Mulyani Indrawati said the coronavirus epidemic had set poverty-eradication efforts back a decade, with more than 2 million people losing their jobs in the past six weeks.
But in a country with more than 13,000 cases of the virus and the highest death toll in East Asia outside China, some believe the move to relax restrictions could be premature.
“It’s too early,” said Dono Widiatmoko, a public health expert at the University of Derby.
“If social restrictions are relaxed with flights and trains resumed, the public will see this as a signal of normality and public transport will get busier, denser.”
Additional reporting by Stanley Widianto. Writing by Kate Lamb; Editing by Ed Davies, Robert Birsel