In recovery, airline industry critical of China travel restrictions

SCHIPHOL, Netherlands. An employee of the GGD hands out free Covid self-tests to travellers from China at Schiphol. The self-tests are provided with information on how to use them in Mandarin or Cantonese. (Keystone/ANP/Robin van Lonkhuijsen)

The International Air Transport Association reacted strongly to restrictions by a growing number of countries on travellers from China amid a sharp spike in Covid infections in the country.

"It is extremely disappointing to see this knee-jerk reinstatement of measures that have proven ineffective over the last three years," Willie Walsh, the director general of the International Air Transport Association (IATA), said on Wednesday.

The airline industry was severely impacted by measures taken after the World Health Organization declared Covid-19 a public health emergency of international concern in early 2020, losing up to $137.7 billion in 2020, and less consequentially, $42.1bn in 2021 and $9.7bn in 2022, according to IATA’s figures.

In a published statement, Walsh argued that measures introduced by several European countries and the United States were unwarranted given rising infections in other countries. "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."

“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,” he added.

Walsh urged governments to listen to experts, including the WHO, who he said advised 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 late 2020, IATA restructured its workforce due to the severe impact of Covid-19 on its activities, cutting more than 20 per cent of its budgeted positions.

Reactions in Europe

Nonetheless, since 7 December, when the Chinese government announced the end of its zero-Covid strategy, reports of overwhelmed hospitals and crematoriums battling to cope, have signalled concerns over a likely spike in infections, prompting Western countries to impose travel restrictions.

Italy, badly hit by the virus in 2020, was one of the first to impose new entry requirements for travellers from China. The health minister announced on December 28 all airline passengers would be subject to mandatory testing upon arrival.

Reports said that more than a third of all passengers on one of the first flights to Italy tested positive for Covid-19.

Earlier this week Spain said travellers arriving from China must present a negative Covid-19 test or proof of vaccination. Spain said it would accept any vaccine recognised by the WHO, including Chinese-made Sinovac and Sinopharm.

France now requires travellers from China to present a negative COVID-19 test taken at least 48 hours before departure, while passengers must wear a face mask in flight and be ready to undergo random testing on arrival.

From Thursday, the United Kingdom said travellers would need a pre-departure negative Covid-19 test.  In addition, a sample of passengers would be tested upon arrival.

The Swiss health ministry has said that there was no indication that China's Covid-19 situation posed a threat to the country’s health system, and it had no plans to introduce special measures for Chinese visitors from the Asian nation.

WHO assessment

The World Health Organization (WHO) meanwhile warned on Wednesday that China was under-representing the scale of the outbreak by not sharing relevant Covid data.  Officially, China has only recorded 22 Covid deaths since December.

“It is understandable that some countries are taking steps they believe will protect their own citizens,” Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO’s director general, told reporters.

Mike Ryan, emergencies director at the organisation said sometimes countries may feel the only way they will be able to  detect new and potentially more transmissible variants will be to test people as they enter into a country.

“But testing itself is not a travel restriction. It's a requirement for travel. It's not an excessive measure based on an individual country's risk assessment,” Ryan said.

China reacted Thursday by announcing data showing a nearly 50 per cent increase in cases in the week to 1 January.