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OPINION: Aviation and the question of requiring COVID-19 vaccination

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RGN OP-ED Banner with blue back ground and black wingtipMore than a month on from the announcement of a more contagious and indeed more deadly variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19, aviation is again experiencing a sharp downturn. Governments are closing their borders, implementing mandatory hotel quarantines, scrutinising passengers’ reasons for travel, and more.

The aviation industry has largely come down against these harder measures, particularly quarantines, despite the evidence from successful COVID-19 eradication (or near-eradication) work in, among others, Australia, China, New Zealand, South Korea and Taiwan.

The continual discovery of cases of the disease being missed by testing and discovered in the managed quarantine facilities of more successful countries after arrival is dispiriting — but not as dispiriting as watching airlines and aviation trade bodies insist that testing is all that is necessary, in the face of what seems to be clear evidence.

In context, this very much feels like fighting the previous war. Some industrialised countries are making good progress on vaccinating their most vulnerable citizens and critical medical staff, and 2021 is looking to be the year when many of these countries will reach the critical mass of numbers vaccinated multiplied by the efficacy of the vaccines.

As a result, it seems likely that there will come a point at which some countries will implement an immigration requirement to have been vaccinated against the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Airlines will be required to administer this, whether via a system like the IATA Travel Pass or a more checkin-intensive process.

This may well become fraught with complications to manage. With multiple pharmaceutical companies producing a half-dozen different vaccines, the certification of each has proven different levels of effectiveness — both in general and in different populations.

It is entirely possible that there may well be a decision by Country X that vaccines A, B and C qualify as “immunised” but not less efficient vaccine D. It is also possible that this may be broken down by age group: if vaccine B is less effective in, say, the over-70s, it may be judged not to qualify by some governments.

Furthermore, there are some people who are unable for valid medical reasons to be vaccinated with the present vaccines, and they are protected by wider societal vaccination. Existing vaccine requirements against other diseases have a medical waiver system, like that used for Yellow Fever for example.

Yet experience in everything from support animal certification to fake COVID-19 test results to wider doctor-shopping suggests that there is likely to be a subset of the population who would be happy to provide false or spurious waivers. A robust system is clearly needed to protect public health.

There is also a specific question for aviation: should airlines themselves require proof of vaccination — or a waiver — in order to permit passengers to board the aircraft?

Qantas came out early in favour, with surveys suggesting that nearly 90% of its passengers would consent to vaccination if it were required for international travel. Meanwhile, over-50s travel company Saga has said passengers on its holidays and cruises must be vaccinated.

The question of whether airlines should require vaccination runs right up to commercial aviation’s somewhat unusual nature as both a key part of global infrastructure and as an often-loose mass of private, publicly and semi-publicly held companies.

Is there a difference to, say, a privately held airline in the US (where there is substantial competition on many if not most routes) requiring vaccination versus a national carrier with monopoly or near-monopoly power doing so?

Aviation needs to get out in front of these issues, come to an opinion on how it can best manage them, and secure buy-in from staff, regulators, governments, related industries, passengers, and the public at large. That’s no small order — which is why aviation needs to be putting its efforts into it now, rather than fighting the last battle on quarantines.

Aviation, as a whole, cannot rely on a reserve of goodwill either from the public or from their elected representatives and the regulators operating via those governments. Fighting a battle against all the hard-won public health evidence from the last year to an argument that is, in essence, “please let us keep transporting people infected with COVID-19 around” isn’t just immoral — it’s illogical. Working out the answer to the vaccination question would be a much better use of aviation’s time, effort and lobbying power.

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