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IATA boss criticises ‘kneejerk’ travel restrictions due to Omicron

written by Isabella Richards | December 9, 2021

Willie Walsh, director general of IATA.

Governments need to stop implementing “kneejerk” travel restrictions in response to new COVID-19 variants, says Willie Walsh, director general of the International Air Transport Association (IATA).

He urges the globe to “move away from the uncoordinated, evidence absent, risk-unassessed mess that travelers face”, to ensure the industry’s recovery is not stunted amid surges in cases.

The B.1.1.529 Omicron variant was first reported to the World Health Organization (WHO) from South Africa on 24 November, and epidemiologists have said it is one of concern, despite knowledge of it still remaining unclear.

In response to the variant, governments across the world shut their borders from South Africa in a bid to curb the spread.

It’s estimated South Africa will lose millions due to cancelled flights weekly following the border closures, and the President of South Africa, among other leaders, have persisted that the immediate flight suspensions were not the correct response.

Walsh is pushing countries to follow the advice of the WHO that advises against travel curbs to maintain the spread.

“Blanket travel bans will not prevent the international spread, and they place a heavy burden on lives and livelihoods,” the WHO says.


Fears that border closures will push countries to avoid reporting on new variants or sequencing data can “adversely impact global health efforts,” the organisation added.

In late October, ministers and heads of 24 international organisations completed a review of pandemic-driven priorities for the recovery of global air transport, forming commitments on border risk management.

These were established in a declaration as the results from the nine-day ICAO COVID-19 conference, which included that those responses should be “time-bound and regularly reviewed”.

Walsh said governments are required to abide by the signed declaration as the “rushed decisions” are “unacceptable”.

The director general has remained a strong voice of the industry during the pandemic, consistently criticising governments and airlines for making decisions not based on scientific evidence.

In the latest update, the European Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (ECDC) said the effectiveness of travel-related measures will decrease, and countries should de-escalate them.

Walsh said that when measures are put in place, it is “very challenging” for governments to consider reviewing or removing them.

“That is why is it essential that governments commit to a review period when any new measure is introduced,” Walsh said.

“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.”



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