by Kevin Rozario London, United Kingdom
New border closures, longer quarantines and tighter travel restrictions are not based on science or travel data say many, and they could destroy a fragile aviation recovery.
Data from seat booking analyst ForwardKeys revealing travel patterns from eight southern African countries most ‘at risk’ from the Omicron (B.1.1.529) variant of Coronavirus support objections to immediate and/or blanket travel restrictions, which have started in earnest.
Earlier this week, the head of the World Health Organization, a United Nations agency, criticized measures taken by countries in the past few days to stop the spread of the Omicron variant as “blunt” and “blanket” and an over-reaction.
WHO director-general Tedros Ghebreyesus said that while it was understandable that nations would want to protect their citizens, Omicron was still a largely unknown threat. More to the point, he noted that the world should not forget “that we are already dealing with a highly transmissible, dangerous variant – the Delta variant – which accounts for almost all cases globally”.
The new report from ForwardKeys covering Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe has just been released. It shows which destinations were the most visited from these nations since 1 November, and that, so far, a limited few account for a lot of the travel and that a more focused approach might be better.
Middle East is Top Destination for Southern African Travelers
Top of the list were the Middle East destinations – most likely connection points – of Qatar and United Arab Emirates, each with 12% of travelers from the eight countries. They were followed by the UK and Ethiopia with 7% each.
Drilling down further, ForwardKeys says that the top ten airport hubs most used by those travelers were Doha with 22%, Addis Ababa, 15%; Dubai, 13%; Lusaka, 6%; Johannesburg, 6%; Nairobi, 6%; Frankfurt, 4%; Amsterdam, 3%; Paris, 3% and Heathrow, 2% (see chart below). The London hub has reinstated Terminal 4 for so called red list countries that the UK government now deems unsafe due to Omicron.
Olivier Ponti, vice president of insights at ForwardKeys, commented: “We are acutely aware of the dreadful damage done by COVID19 to people’s health, but also of the damage done to countries’ economies by the measures governments have felt compelled to take in response to it.
“We believe the best policies to control the spread of Omicron and other variants should be based on facts, not fear. If blanket bans on travel can be avoided, that must be the preferable strategy. Travel data can help by telling policymakers exactly where people from the at-risk areas went and where they connected.”
However, while these historical data are useful, it is forward bookings rather than past data, that would be most useful in intelligently instituting travel bans for the most likely routes for spreading Omicron.
Risk-based Measures Based on the Science
Airports association, ACI World, has called upon governments to implement pragmatic and risk-based measures based on the science. It’s director general Luis Felipe de Oliveira said: “While public health remains the utmost priority, we call upon governments to coordinate pragmatic measures. We continue to urge countries to work closely with aviation stakeholders – including airports and airlines – prior to and during the implementation of travel measures.”
ACI World said that this latest scenario in the ongoing COVID crisis is a reminder of “the urgent need for countries to adopt interoperable digital health credentials for testing and vaccination”. He added: “Mutually recognized credentials across borders will allow countries to better manage their travel measures and adapt to the evolving health situation.”
At global airlines group International Air Transport Association, director general, Willie Walsh, was equally critical: “October’s traffic performance reinforces that people will travel when they are permitted to. Unfortunately, government responses to the Omicron variant are putting at risk the global connectivity it has taken so long to rebuild.”
It is clear that only cross-border coordination and collaboration will ensure the safe and sustained resumption of travel. “Full travel bans and border closures are not an ongoing solution as variants emerge,” said ACI World’s de Oliveira.
[Main image: Sanitation station at London Heathrow courtesy of Heathrow Airport Limited.]