Omicron plunges travel industry into COVID uncertainty – POLITICO – .

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Omicron plunges travel industry into COVID uncertainty – POLITICO – .


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Just a few weeks ago, it looked like the worst was over.

The United States had finally lifted its 19-month travel ban in Europe, and the revival of lucrative transatlantic routes promised to support an industry that has reportedly lost $ 6 trillion since the start of the pandemic. British Airways chief Sean Doyle called it a “moment to celebrate”.

But this optimism may prove to be premature. The arrival of the Omicron variant of the coronavirus, first detected in South Africa, is pushing countries to adopt new travel restrictions.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen called on EU countries to suspend all air travel from countries affected by variants. At the time of the announcement, that meant restricting flights from six countries in southern Africa.

As clusters of Omicron cases began to appear across the bloc – including Belgium, the Netherlands, Ireland, Italy, Portugal, Germany and the Czech Republic, as well as the UK – United – countries go further.

Poland, for example, announced a 14-day quarantine for anyone coming from outside the Schengen area without an EU visa. Spain has tightened travel rules, requiring vaccinations for people coming from the UK

Switzerland, meanwhile, has introduced a 10-day quarantine and negative PCR test requirement for non-Swiss nationals or residents from countries like Belgium, the Netherlands, the UK and the Czech Republic. .

The UK government has decided to reintroduce PCR testing and self-isolation requirements for all overseas visitors (except those coming from Ireland). And further afield, Israel and Japan effectively closed their borders.

Airlines are watching with apprehension as countries close hatches.

The head of the International Air Transport Association, Willie Walsh, accused governments of responding to the new variant – much of which remains unknown – in “emergency mode”.

“As quickly as possible, we need to use the experience of the past two years to move to a coordinated, data-driven approach that finds safe alternatives to border closures and quarantine,” he said.

Airlines for Europe (A4E) said new variants should be monitored, but border closures should be a “measure of last resort”. Travelers could find alternative routes to enter the EU through non-European hubs, where the same testing standards may not apply, the lobby group suggested.

Before news of the variant brought down governments, air traffic had resumed.

In August, the number of commercial flights to the EU increased by 48% compared to August last year. Industry attributed this to the introduction of the EU’s digital COVID certificate – the block-wide pass that records a passenger’s vaccinations, tests or recovery status, which has made it possible to streamline the rules that previously varied between countries and even regions.

Vaccine validity

The chaos caused by Omicron comes as the EU is already considering tougher travel measures to control a dramatic resurgence of the coronavirus across the bloc.

Portugal, for example, cracked down on travel before Omicron, announcing it would require anyone entering the country to test negative before boarding, with airlines facing hefty fines for non-verification.

Last week, the Commission updated its travel guidelines, recommending that EU vaccination certificates for travel be considered valid for only nine months. He also suggested tying travel rules within the EU to the personal risk to passengers’ health, rather than their country of departure.

The plan is supposed to make vaccine hesitant to get bitten and encourage double doses to get the vaccine.

It is always up to national governments to decide whether they want to support the proposals; two country officials told POLITICO that countries are divided over whether to support the nine-month validity period or give each other more time to deploy boosters and push to extend it to 12 months.

A4E called the Commission proposal “premature”, saying it “may endanger people’s ability to travel”, given that many EU countries have yet to set third doses to available to most of their adult populations.

Figures from Our World in Data suggest that very few Europeans have received booster injections, although some countries, including Belgium, are now rushing into booster programs. The UK announced on Monday that it will make boosters available to all adults.

The Omicron variant may have highlighted the urgency of moving vaccination campaigns forward, but it also highlights the very different approaches taken by EU countries.

During a press briefing on Monday, Commission spokesperson Eric Mamer urged member countries to stick to the EU’s COVID certificate, “especially when it comes to not imposing Unjustified barriers to travel for those who have been fully vaccinated, have undergone a PCR test, or may show they have recovered from COVID. “

Yet, with experts warning that it is too early to know how effective current vaccines will be against the new variant – and some countries are closing their borders again – the travel industry says it is afraid of what waiting for him.

Eric Drésin, secretary general of the European travel agent and tour operator associations, said “it is essential to give scientists time to assess and explain the risks of Omicron”, but urged governments the EU to better coordinate restrictions. to avoid crippling the travel industry as it recovers.

Carlo Martuscelli contributed reports.

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