In line with the latest recommendations from the World Health Organization (WHO), the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) has issued a new global bulletin urging a more measured and evidence-based approach to countries’ national air transport restrictions due to the emergence of the SARS-CoV-2 Omicron variant.
Until more detailed assessments are available, the UN aviation agency is encouraging countries to continue combating the spread of COVID-19, and specifically the Omicron variant, using the recommendations and guidance contained in the ICAO Council Aviation Recovery Task Force’s (CART) Take-off Guidance for Air Travel through the COVID-19 Public Health Crisis, in addition to the third edition of ICAO’s Manual on COVID-19 Cross-Border Risk Management.
The new bulletin was issued on December 1 under the authority of ICAO Secretary General Juan Carlos Salazar, who commented that “It’s critical that we continue to respond to this disease and its variants on the basis of the best available science and evidence.”
“Countries have recently and very clearly reinforced their commitments to proceed on this basis through their Ministerial Declaration outcome from our High-level Conference on COVID-19, in addition to other multilateral statements, and the costs and implications of being excessively cautious and overly restrictive in this context must be carefully measured by all concerned,” he underscored.
ICAO and other UN bodies have been consistently reinforcing that no country can defeat COVID-19 in isolation, and that the costs of significantly restricted global air mobility affect all countries, and are especially acute for landlocked and small island developing states. Countries are encouraged to follow and implement ICAO’s guidance with the coordination and support of the ICAO Regional Offices, and according to their specific national needs and circumstances.
The ICAO bulletin also re-emphasized the importance of “a globally coordinated approach,” and for countries to proceed based on “principles of solidarity and equality in order to mitigate the transmission of the disease and facilitate the recovery of international travel and the global economy.”
Meanwhile, Willie Walsh, Director General at the International Air Transport Association (IATA) has said that government responses to the emergence of the Omicron variant are putting at risk the global connectivity it has taken so long to rebuild.
“The lifting of the U.S. restrictions on travel from some 33 countries last month raised hopes that a surge in pent-up travel demand would buoy traffic over the coming Northern Hemisphere winter. But the emergence of the Omicron variant panicked many governments into once again restricting or entirely removing the freedom to travel—even though WHO clearly advised that ‘blanket travel bans will not prevent the international spread, and they place a heavy burden on lives and livelihoods.’ The logic of the WHO advice was evident within days of Omicron’s identification in South Africa, with its presence already confirmed in all continents. The ill-advised travel bans are as ineffective as closing the barn door after the horse has bolted,” said Walsh.
It is understandable that ICAO and IATA are concerned about the impact of Omicron on the global aviation industry. At the same time, it is conceivable that countries will opt for a cautious approach until evidence on new variants of concern is gathered, given the hindsight of not acting sooner when the coronavirus first began to spread.