Air industry chief Willie Walsh attacks 'unfair' vaccine passports

IATA head says continued restrictions are based on fear of political consequences rather than scientific data

A passenger walks past signage showing the way to a Covid-19 test centre, in Terminal 5 at Heathrow airport. AFP
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Proof of vaccination against Covid-19 should not become a requirement for air travel, a top industry figure has said.

Willie Walsh, the head of the International Air Transport Association (IATA), said it would exclude people who may not get fully vaccinated for years.

He said the high demand for air travel when restrictions were lifted showed that passengers were not scared of flying.

Airlines are lobbying governments to open up travel more widely after more than a year of crippling travel bans.

From July 19, travellers from England will not have to quarantine on their return from amber list countries — but only if they are fully vaccinated.

Vaccine certification is also proving a problem for entry into the EU because AstraZeneca doses made in India are not universally recognised.

Mr Walsh said that continued restrictions were based on fear of political consequences rather than scientific data.

The UK government’s failure to ban flights from India until mid-April was widely blamed for the spread of the Delta variant in Britain.

“When the restrictions are removed, people want to travel and people do travel,” Mr Walsh told an event hosted by Farnborough International air show.

“To me, there’s no real fear among customers getting on board an aircraft.

“What we’re dealing with now is political risk. We’re not dealing with a health issue now. It’s not based on protecting people’s lives, it’s based on protecting politicians’ careers.”

Mr Walsh, the former head of British Airways, said that restricting travel to fully vaccinated people would be “grossly unfair”.

While vaccines are widely available in many wealthy countries, the developing world faces a shortfall in supplies.

“The idea that going forward into the future the only way you can travel is if you’re vaccinated, I think that would be wrong and deeply regrettable,” he said.

“There will be parts of the world that will take years to get fully vaccinated.”

Some countries treat a negative Covid test as equivalent to full vaccination, but a package of gold-standard PCR tests can cost hundreds of pounds.

Mr Walsh suggested that governments should pick up the cost of such tests to enable air travel.

“If you’re looking at a family of four the costs start to add up significantly,” he said.

Covid checks at airports mean that airlines are expecting long delays when international travel resumes in earnest.

Passenger numbers at London’s Heathrow Airport, the busiest international terminal in the UK, are almost 90 per cent down on pre-pandemic levels.

But the amber list exemption will open up popular destinations such as France and Spain for the first time this year.

The UK government expects airlines to check people’s vaccination status before allowing them to board a plane, but people arriving in Britain will still have to hand in passenger locator forms and go through passport and immigration checks.

The move to make travel easier to popular holiday destinations such as France, Spain and Greece is limited to travellers who have been vaccinated through the UK’s National Health Service, and excludes people who have been inoculated abroad.

Updated: July 14, 2021, 1:06 PM