Mavroudis Global Transportation & Logistics

IATA urges governments to follow WHO Omicron variant travel advice

December 13, 2021

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The International Air Transport Association (IATA) called for governments to follow World Health Organization (WHO) advice and immediately rescind travel bans that were introduced, in response to the Omicron variant of COVID-19.

Public health organisations, including the WHO, have advised against travel curbs to contain the spread of Omicron. WHO advice for international traffic in relation to the SARS-CoV-2 Omicron variant stated 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 disincentivising 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.”

Time-Limited Science-Bases Measures 

The same WHO advice also notes that stated that 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.” 

“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,” commented Willie Walsh, IATA’s Director General.

Cleaning Up the Mess

IATA urges governments to reconsider all Omicron measures. “The goal is to move away from the uncoordinated, evidence absent, risk-unassessed mess that travellers 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 travellers just as many are about to embark on year-end visits to family or hard-earned vacations,” added 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 co-operation and co-ordination 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,” as stated in the ICAO HLCC Ministerial Declaration.

“Despite this clear commitment, very few governments have addressed early over-reactions to Omicron. With the European CDC already signaling 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. 

European Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (ECDC) in the latest update to its Threat Assessment Brief on the implications of Omicron in Europe noted 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. 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,” further commented Walsh.

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