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Omicron threat: A little respect for the travel industry will go a long way

Caveat: Ireland must choose between following UK or EU policy on travel rules

Life comes at you fast in the travel industry in the time of Omicron. On Wednesday, Ryanair’s chief executive, Michael O’Leary, told the Guardian newspaper that the UK government’s response to the new vaccine-dodging variant is replete with “panic” being spread by “idiots”.

From the perspective of an airline that now expects to fly one million fewer passengers in December than it thought it would just weeks ago, this is an understandably crotchety stance.

O’Leary contrasted the approach in the UK, where all European arrivals must present negative Covid PCR tests, with the easier travel measures for the vaccinated that are still prevalent across much of the rest of Europe.

He bemoaned that the sense of panic over travel measures to slow Omicron is confined to Britain and also Ireland. Even vaccinated travellers to Ireland who hold European Union Covid certificates must present a negative test to enter this State or face the possibility of quarantine.

It was already bad enough. Then, barely 12 hours after O’Leary’s comments, the French government slapped an effective ban from Saturday on most travel to and from Britain.

Omicron has pushed UK case numbers to previously unseen levels. The French decision has to be seen in the context of the brickbatting that has prevailed for months between the two countries. Leaders on either side are engaged in blatant diplomatic needling for domestic political optics.

But an effective ban on non-essential travel for Christmas between France and Britain is still a startling situation to contemplate, when all of Europe barely six weeks ago was daring to hope that the worst of the pandemic’s hard restrictions might be behind us.

Irritated

O’Leary, presumably, is even more irritated by it now than he was on Wednesday. It is hard to blame him for it.

At the time of writing, it is unclear what, if any, fresh travel restrictions the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) may recommend for Ireland after its Thursday meeting. A Government Cabinet meeting likely will be held later on Friday and the nation may yet learn what’s coming in another message from the Taoiseach, Micheál Martin.

No matter what is decided now, it is obvious that hard obstacles to international travel as a tool to combat the virus are back in vogue in the halls of public health policymaking. Politicians are once again contemplating them too, although perhaps with more reluctance than the medics. Even if more travel restrictions are not imposed now, there will be calls from the usual quarters for them next week or next month.

Ireland has had a common travel area with Britain since 1922. But in recent years, only the British have ever shown any respect towards it

A decision that Ireland has to face is whether it aligns itself with Britain on anti-Covid travel rules, or whether it stays with the herd in the European Union. At the moment, it has chosen to peel off from both and that is a recipe for confusion. If travellers are confused, imagine how the people running the aviation sector feel as they make decisions about the deployment of tens of millions of euros worth of assets. No industry can function properly in the medium term under such a cloud of doubt.

Ireland has had a common travel area with Britain since 1922. But in recent years, only the British have ever shown any respect towards it. Irish authorities inexplicably thumb their noses at it.

Think of the last time you flew from Ireland to Britain. Did you have to show your passport on arrival? I don’t believe I have ever had to show my passport to a British official, although this is moot if most airlines still ask to see it. Irish flights normally land in a UK domestic channel.

Useless

Every time I return home, I have had to join the passport queue at Dublin Airport, rendering the Common Travel Area useless in practice.

When Britain recently introduced its stringent border testing requirements, it exempted Ireland from the rules because, well, a 99-year-old travel agreement has to count for something. Ireland chose not to return the favour, in keeping with a now well-established pattern.

Meanwhile, Ireland’s travel rules have for weeks been stricter than those of most other European countries, although that gap has tightened in recent days. Italy has just announced it will implement testing requirements this week even for EU travellers, as will Greece. Portugal has required tests for a couple of weeks. But much of the rest of the EU still allows fairly easy intra-bloc travel, if you are vaccinated and have a Covid certificate.

Should Ireland align itself more closely with the UK’s rules on travel, or with the EU? It is best to stick with the European herd as much as possible, even as the bloc’s commitment to free travel will be tested in coming months.

The initial thinking behind the most recent border restrictions was to try to slow the spread of Omicron. But it didn’t work and it is useless trying to keep the new strain out now anyway. Omicron is in, it is over the gates and spreading rapidly in the community, where its ability to challenge hospitals like Delta did will soon be proven or refuted.

Growing rapidly

The latest figures suggest that Omicron now accounts for 27 per cent of all new infections in the Republic and the proportion is growing rapidly. It is rampant here already and soon will be dominant. Cranking up travel restrictions now would seem to be just a pessimist’s comfort blanket.

We cannot forget the lessons of 2020, when the introduction of a new strain at Christmas caused chaos and death. It isn’t hard to understand why O’Leary might see panic everywhere, but there is also plenty of reason for responsible caution until Omicron’s abilities are clearly apparent in a vaccinated society.

But while we are remembering the lessons of a year ago, let us not forget a major one from the months that followed: mandatory hotel quarantine was a diplomatic, economic and social abomination.

Ignore any siren calls that might emerge for its broad reintroduction. Beyond a few specific, time-limited and targeted uses, it served no effective purpose as a broad measure at the beginning of 2021, and it would be the same now.

Those who make public policy have much to juggle in the weeks ahead. It will not be easy. But hopefully they remember to show due respect to the travel industry while they are figuring out what to do.

The travel industry, especially aviation, is crucial to this State’s prospects. It should not be messed around without compelling reason; a prolonged air of uncertainty is ruinous for the sector.

On that sentiment, O’Leary is absolutely right.