Aviation bodies hit out at Covid testing recommendation for EU Member States

By Luke Barras-hill |

Airport and airline associations have criticised the ‘knee-jerk reaction’ of EU member states in agreeing a raft of recommended travel measures for passengers departing from China.

On Wednesday, state officials in the presence of the Schengen Associated Countries met in Brussels and aligned on a ‘coordinated precautionary approach’* amid the growing wave of Covid-19 cases in China.

One of the recommendations is for Member States to ‘strongly encourage’ all passengers to present a negative Covid-19 test no later than 48 hours prior to departure from China.

China, which is set to scrap its Covid-19 quarantine requirements this weekend, has criticised the move to impose travel restrictions.

In a joint statement, Airlines for Europe (A4E), the International Air Transport Association (IATA), and Airports Council International (ACI) Europe say the recommendation agreed by country officials in Brussels ‘is at odds’ with an assessment published by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) on 3 January.

Willie Walsh, Director General, IATA: “We have the tools to manage Covid-19 without resorting to ineffective measures that cut off international connectivity, damage economies and destroy jobs.” Source: IATA.

Measures are not mandatory

ECDC says that given the higher population immunity in the EU/EEA and the fact that Covid-19 variants in China are already in circulation in Europe, a rise in cases is not expected to affect the epidemiological situation.

“As such, systematically testing incoming travellers from China cannot be considered a scientifically driven and risk-based measure,” read the joint statement.

While travellers could be required to present a negative Covid-19 test on departure, undergo random on-arrival testing and wear a mask on flights, the measures are not mandatory and are at the discretion of individual Member States.

The joint statement continued: “While it is regrettable that the recommendations agreed largely amount to a ‘knee-jerk reaction’, it is now vital that they are implemented by EU member states in a fully uniform manner – in full compliance with the addendums to the EU Aviation Health Safety Protocol to be published in the coming days by EASA and ECDC. These addendums will provide detailed guidance regarding passenger testing and wastewater testing.

“A4E, ACI Europe and IATA look forward to further engaging with the EU on the reassessment of these recommendations by mid-January 2023.

“We urge EU Member States and China to work together and to reconsider at the earliest opportunity their requirements for systematic pre-departure testing of travellers based on a scientifically driven risk assessment.”

Wastewater sampling: due diligence required

The associations say they support a move away from testing passengers, but the aforementioned suggestion to test wastewater from airports and aircraft arriving from China must consider ‘technical and operational practicalities’ before any decision is taken to begin sampling.

“When required, airports and airlines will do their utmost to facilitate such sampling – on the understanding that it needs to be carried out by the competent health authorities, as airport and airline staff are not qualified to do so,” added the statement.

Willie Walsh, Director General, IATA added: “Several countries are introducing Covid-19 testing and other measures for travellers from China, even though the virus is already circulating widely within their borders. It is extremely disappointing to see this knee-jerk reinstatement of measures that have proven ineffective over the last three years.

ACI World Director General Luis Felipe de Oliveira.

ACI World Director General Luis Felipe de Oliveira: “ACI World strongly reiterates that if any health-related travel measures are deemed necessary, that they be risk- and evidence-based.”

“Research undertaken around the arrival of the Omicron variant concluded that putting barriers in the way of travel made no difference to the peak spread of infections. At most, restrictions delayed that peak by a few days. If a new variant emerges in any part of the world, the same situation would be expected.

“That’s why governments should listen to the advice of experts, including the WHO, that advise against travel restrictions. We have the tools to manage Covid-19 without resorting to ineffective measures that cut off international connectivity, damage economies and destroy jobs. Governments must base their decisions on ‘science facts’ rather than ‘science politics’.”

In a statement, ACI World Director General Luis Felipe Oliveira added: “We can’t repeat past mistakes. We are working with ICAO and other international organisations to protect connectivity — which is vital to fully restoring travel, trade, and tourism that provide economic and social benefits to communities worldwide.

“As such, we welcome the government of China’s plan to lift Covid-19 quarantine requirements for international arrivals. As the last major economy in the world to re-open its borders, the decision represents a key milestone in the recovery of air travel. We now call on them to go further and re-assess their testing requirements as well.

“In order to ensure the smooth recovery of air traffic and the benefits this brings, cooperation and the establishment of standards through ICAO, WHO and others that harmonise the processes for international travel between countries are crucial. Several States are now reactively re-introducing Covid-19 testing and other health measures for travellers from China.

“ACI World strongly reiterates that if any health-related travel measures are deemed necessary, that they be risk- and evidence-based. It is imperative for governments to have a harmonised response and to coordinate this response with other countries and aviation stakeholders. Let’s not take two steps backwards but continue to move forward with the valuable lessons learned from the past.”

*Member states agree to the following: recommend to all passengers on flights to and from China to wear a medical mask or FFP2/N95/KN95 respirators; issue advice to incoming and outgoing international travellers coming from or destined for China, as well as to aircraft and airport personnel, regarding personal hygiene and health measures; strongly encourage, for all passengers departing from China to Member States, the requirement for a negative Covid-19 test taken not more than 48 hours prior to departure from China. Member states are advised to complement these recommendations with random on-arrival testing of passengers to Member States; testing and sequencing of wastewater from airports with international flights and aircraft arriving from China; and promoting vaccine sharing and the uptake of vaccines, including booster doses.

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