Why the call for maskless travel is mistimed

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Martin Moodie
Martin Moodie is the Founder & Chairman of The Moodie Report.

Well Daddy, I’ve been tryin’, I just can’t catch a break
There’s too much in this world I can’t seem to shake
But I remember your words, Lord, they bring me to chills
Keep your nose on the grindstone and out of the pills
– Nose on the Grindstone, Tyler Childers

“Calls for…”

Welcome to one of the most popular, yet often futile, phrases of our time. Industry X ‘calls for’ relief; association Y ‘calls for’ government U-turn; government Z ‘calls for’ government Z+ to change tack. You know the sort of thing.

It is the job, of course, of trade associations and other interest and lobby groups – business, political, sporting and otherwise – to pressure for change. But I sometimes wonder if the key messages sometimes get lost in all the ‘calls for’ noise. And if some of those calls aren’t just plumb wrong.

I could call for relief for small travel retail B2B publishers during a global pandemic that had the potential to wipe out two decades of hard work; prompted the fast-aging founder to put his nose to the grindstone for so long that it is a wonder he has one left; and cost valued members of my team their jobs.

But who would I call? Ghostbusters? Yeah, right. And who would listen even if I did? I and we have just got to get on with it, as we have done. Adapt, innovate and most of all excel. Be nimble, be brave, be a good partner and keep remembering to give not just take. Relationships matter more in crisis not less. In business as in writing I like to keep things simple. That’s been my mantra and I’m proud that we, and my nose (though, thanks to many years on the rugby pitch, resembling the Boulevard Périphérique that encircles Paris), are still solidly intact.

One particular ‘calls for’ grabbed my attention this week as I was editing a story by our Senior Business Editor Mark Lane. It was headlined, ‘ACI and IATA call for all intra-EU COVID travel restrictions to be removed’.

The story detailed how Airports Council International (ACI) Europe and the International Air Transport Association (IATA) – both fine and effective associations – had jointly called for the scrapping of all remaining COVID restrictions applying to intra-EU and Schengen area travel. These included all testing requirements, the need to present proof of vaccination, or complete a Passenger Locator Form (PLF).

But here’s the bit that really grabbed my attention. ACI Europe and IATA also called for the dropping of mask-wearing for travel within or between States where it is no longer required in other indoor environments.

Click on the image to read the full article

Their rationale for all of the above was as follows. “COVID-19, and specifically the Omicron variant, is now pervasive throughout all of Europe, and population immunity is at such levels that the risk of hospitalisation or death has dramatically reduced, especially for vaccinated people.

“Many European states have lifted domestic COVID restrictions, such as the need to provide health credentials to enter social events, or the requirement to wear masks in public spaces. Contact tracing efforts are also being stood down, rendering PLFs for international travel redundant. As European countries open up and remove restrictions, it is only logical to remove similar restrictions from air transport [my italics].”

While I wholeheartedly support both associations’ efforts to boost the stricken aviation sector, and stimulate a stuttering air travel recovery, I am not convinced that a call for the ending of compulsory mask-wearing onboard flights is prudent or even right. I can think of many Asian friends and business colleagues – many of them battle-hardened by the SARS experience of 2002-04 – who would not even contemplate boarding a flight if all fellow passengers were maskless (on top of not having to show proof of vaccination).

If you want those Asian passengers back on your planes and into your airports, I suspect the call for a mask-free environment is not so much misguided as mistimed.

Yes, the Omicron variant is pervasive across Europe. But we are far from through this pandemic. In the UK, for example, cases among older people are increasing, according to Dr Jenny Harries, Chief Executive of the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA), who sounded the alarm after data showed that an increasing number of people aged 55 and over have COVID.

Sky News this week reported an “uptick” in hospital admissions. While total cases have declined substantially following the peak of the Omicron wave, the increasing presence of the BA.2 sub-lineage and the recent slight increase in infections in those over 55 show that the pandemic is not over, the report noted.

Click on the image to read the Sky News report

Let’s take some other major European countries, France and Germany. According to Worldometer, France recorded 72,399 new cases yesterday (similar to the UK’s 72,828) and Germany a whopping 245,342. A report by Chinese news agency Xinhua quoted France’s Pasteur Institute saying that contamination rates after the lifting of health restrictions on 14 March will increase by 50 to 130 percent compared to the previous months of 2022. As of that date, it will no longer be mandatory to wear a mask in indoor areas, except on public transport (my italics) and in health establishments.

In Germany the pandemic is entering a new “critical” health situation with cases soaring to new records, Health Minister Dr Karl Lauterbach said at a press conference on Friday. He said the public and political mood was deceptive – that “we have mastered the pandemic”. Again, the more transmissible sub-variant BA.2 is responsible for the spike.

Not surprisingly then, perhaps, there is another ‘calls for’. This time from German Chancellor Olaf Scholz who has called for vaccinations to be made mandatory.

German media title DW (Deutsche Welle) reports on a rapidly deteriorating situation. Click on image to read.

“Removing all COVID-19 restrictions will finally fully restore the freedom to travel,” contends the admirable Olivier Jankovec, who has led his association with much distinction through the pandemic.

Yes. But in the case of mask-wearing such a (literal) removal would also undermine the confidence of many in air travel. Can you really contemplate the likes of Air China, China Southern, Singapore Airlines, Cathay Pacific, or Korean Airlines concurring with such a move?

Every European airport and airline would love to see the return of Chinese passengers. Yet I cannot imagine many Chinese or other Asian travellers feeling remotely comfortable wandering through an airport or boarding a plane in Europe where most people are unmasked.

Click on the image to read how Chinese news agency Xinhua covered the rising case numbers in France

China’s ‘dynamic zero-COVID’ policy, while under great strain now due to the Omicron variant (the Mainland reported 1,100 locally transmitted infections on Friday, including asymptomatic cases, the first time daily case numbers have exceeded 1,000 since the initial outbreak in Wuhan) has been remarkably successful in a vast nation of 1.41 billion people.

And it hasn’t just been about government control; the Chinese people themselves have shown remarkable personal and social responsibility. Read Chinese consumer and social media and you won’t see too much respect for the way certain western nations have handled the crisis.

A total of 397 local confirmed COVID-19 cases and 703 local asymptomatic infections were reported on Thursday, according to the National Health Commission (NHC) the following day. Click on the image to read the Global Times article.

Popular sentiment may be very different in Europe than it is in China specifically or in Asia generally but European aviation does not exist in isolation from the rest of the world. In fact it is heavily dependent on passengers from other regions. Masks are not guaranteed to protect the wearer from COVID-19 infection but according to a myriad of medical studies they mitigate against it.

So, with a certain weariness, I call for those masks to be kept on. And put my nose back to that damn grindstone.

[Note: I welcome comments as always via the Comment box below]