IATA: Get rid of travel bans

Association head says Omicron variant "induced instant amnesia on governments which implemented knee-jerk restrictions" against advice from WHO


New-Singapore-BannerThe International Air Transport Association (IATA) called for governments to follow World Health Organisation (WHO) advice and immediately rescind travel bans that were introduced in response to the Omicron variant of the COVID-19 coronavirus. Public health organisations, including the WHO, have advised against travel curbs to contain the spread of Omicron.

Passengers in protective overall and masks at Suvarnabhumi Airport going to check-in for repatriation flights and waving goodbye during COVID-19 outbreak. (PHOTO: Shutterstock)

WHO advice for international traffic in relation to the SARS-CoV-2 Omicron variant states that: “Blanket travel bans will not prevent the international spread, and they place a heavy burden on lives and livelihoods. In addition, they can adversely impact global health efforts during a pandemic by disincentivizing countries to report and share epidemiological and sequencing data. All countries should ensure that the measures are regularly reviewed and updated when new evidence becomes available on the epidemiological and clinical characteristics of Omicron or any other variants of concern.”

Airlines like Singapore Air have had to ground thousands of planes due to the COVID-19 pandemic and near shutdown of international aviation. (PHOTO: Steve Strike/Outback Photographics)

The same WHO advice also notes that states implementing measures such as screening or quarantine “need to be defined following a thorough risk assessment process informed by the local epidemiology in departure and destination countries and by the health system and public health capacities in the countries of departure, transit and arrival. All measures should be commensurate with the risk, time-limited and applied with respect to travelers’ dignity, human rights and fundamental freedoms, as outlined in the International Health Regulations.”

IATA Director General Willie Walsh at the 2021 annual general meeting in Boston. (PHOTO: IATA)

“After nearly two years with COVID-19 we know a lot about the virus and the inability of travel restrictions to control its spread. But the discovery of the Omicron variant induced instant amnesia on governments which implemented knee-jerk restrictions in complete contravention of advice from the WHO — the global expert,” said Willie Walsh, IATA’s director general.

Download the IATA October 2021 traffic report here.

“What the WHO is saying is that blanket travel bans will not prevent the international spread,” Walsh said in a media conference. “And they place a heavy burden on lives and livelihoods. In addition, they can adversely impact global health efforts during the pandemic, by disincentivizing countries to report and share the epidemiological and sequencing data. All countries should ensure that the measures are regularly reviewed and updated when new evidence becomes available. And that’s the case supported again by the ECDC, which says pretty much the same thing. The best thing governments can do here is to look and assess the risk based on the data and make decisions based on that.

“But it’s clear to us that the travel industry, and airlines in particular are being used as the poster child to transmit fear, to transmit the messages that governments want to force people to continue to restrict their movements, to comply with all of the COVID requirements,” Walsh said. “It’s not because there’s a threat caused by aviation, but it’s merely to be able to demonstrate that there is a threat out there. And by hammering the airline industry, they think they’re sending a strong, powerful message to the general population to get them to comply with the restrictions. But it’s doing huge damage to the airline industry and to tourism industry and to global economies; and it’s doing huge damage to people who have been unable to travel, to connect with their family, connect with friends, travel for business.”

Cambodia is relaxing its quarantine requirements for vaccinate travellers to help rebuild its tourism industry.(PHOTO: Matt Driskill)

IATA urges governments to reconsider all Omicron measures. “The goal is to move away from the uncoordinated, evidence absent, risk-unassessed mess that travelers face. As governments agreed at ICAO and in line with the WHO advice, all measures should be time-bound and regularly reviewed. It is unacceptable that rushed decisions have created fear and uncertainty among travelers just as many are about to embark on year-end visits to family or hard-earned vacations,” said Walsh.

The industry demand asks governments to implement commitments that they have made through ICAO: “We also commit to a multilayer risk management strategy for international civil aviation, which is adaptable, proportionate, non-discriminatory and guided by scientific evidence in close cooperation and coordination with the public health sector, with agreed practices harmonised to the greatest extent possible, for air travel purposes, using commonly accepted epidemiological criteria, testing requirements and vaccination, and underpinned by regular review, monitoring and timely information-sharing among States,” ICAO HLCC Ministerial Declaration (link)

“Despite this clear commitment, very few governments have addressed early over-reactions to Omicron. With the European CDC already signalling that a de-escalation of measures will likely be needed in the coming weeks, governments must urgently put actions behind the commitments that they made at ICAO,” said Walsh.

Singapore Airlines hopes the government’s new Vaccinated Travel Lanes will bring people back to flying. A lone student waits to say goodbye to a friend in a nearly deserted departure hall. (PHOTO: Matt Driskill)

European Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (ECDC) in the latest update to its Threat Assessment Brief  on the implications of Omicron in Europe notes that “given the increasing number of cases and clusters in the EU/EEA without a travel history or contact with travel-related cases, it is likely that within the coming weeks the effectiveness of travel-related measures will significantly decrease, and countries should prepare for a rapid and measured de-escalation of such measures.”

“Once a measure is put in place, it is very challenging to get governments to consider reviewing it, let alone removing it, even when there is plenty of evidence pointing in that direction.  That is why is it essential that governments commit to a review period when any new measure is introduced. If there is an over-reaction—as we believe is the case with Omicron—we must have a way to limit the damage and get back on the right track. And even in more normal circumstances, we must recognise that our understanding of the disease can grow exponentially even in a short period of time. Whatever measures are in place need to be constantly justified against the latest and most accurate scientific knowledge,” said Walsh.

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