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Air travel, ‘perfect safety’ and political leadership during the pandemic… May 28, 2020

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Uncategorized.

A head of steam building up to reverse the fourteen day quarantine on travellers into the state. Michael O’Leary spoke about this yesterday offering us his expertise in the area of virus control, such as it is, and making great play of European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control guidelines.

According to O’Leary:

…the quarantine measures have “no basis in health measures and no basis in science”, adding that people can fly “in perfect safety fully supported by the ECDC and the European Safety Agency”.

And the day before there was a letter in the IT from the head of the Irish Airline Pilots Association which argues in the Irish Times that the fourteen day quarantine on passengers arriving in Ireland will “have a devastating effect on aviation, trade and tourism in Ireland and would ensure negligible passenger demand, and deserted airports with airlines not flying into and out of the island.”

That in a sense is correct. Yet it appears to be based on the idea that other states are opening up perhaps faster than they are. Moreover it too argues that ‘we are guided by the European Union Aviation Safety Agency’s and the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control’s guidelines and advice on how we can conduct flight operations as the Covid-19 pandemic is slowly brought under control.’

Given we are still in the very earliest stages of existing from the lock-down this concern is perhaps premature. There’s also the not insignificant reality that the UK has adopted a similar quarantine measure, as has France. The US isn’t opening any time soon as far as can be determined. It is true that Spain has set a target somewhat sooner in the Summer, as has Greece, but one has to feel that all this is subject to many factors and variables – such as whether there is a second wave of infections. In other words the efforts to push to open seem far far too early given where we currently are at. None of which is to deny the manner in which this pandemic is grievously impacting on those in tourism and travel areas.

Taking a look at the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control guidelines is an interesting exercise in itself. And not one that perhaps is as comforting as the IALPA representative suggests.

For example it argues for a range of measures, masks, hand hygiene, temperature checks and so on. Indeed right up to the door of the aircraft one might well feel quite comfortable with the direction in which it goes. Well to a point. For example those temperature checks?

It should be recognised that thermal screening has many limitations and little evidence of effectiveness in detecting COVID-19 cases:
 Many symptomatic persons do not have fever and a large percentage of transmission of COVID-19 occurs by asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic cases;
 Fever can easily be treated with medication; and
 It may give a false impression of safety with negative effect on compliance with other measures.

So really this is a bit cosmetic. But it strenuously argues that:

Passengers should be reminded that physical distancing between individuals of 1.5 metres should be maintained as much as is possible in the airport. For the supporting evidence regarding physical distancing, please see Annex 1.

Except… when one boards the aircraft – or a bit before, because there are caveats:

Aeroplane operators and airport operators should cooperate to ensure physical distancing is respected wherever feasible, especially during check-in, security check, pre-boarding and boarding. When the recommended physical distancing of 1.5 metres is not possible, due to infrastructure or operational constraints, aeroplane operators and airport operators should implement the additional risk mitigation measures such as hand hygiene, respiratory etiquette, additional transport, etc. Airport operators should also, as far as practicable, put in place separate opposite flows. This could be achieved through floor markings or direction signs. The access to airport lavatories should respect the principles of physical distancing.

Yeah, but on the aircraft it’ll be okay, won’t it? After all, later in the document it argues that in the event of a ‘suspected case’ on board:

Passengers who were seated 2 seats in every direction from the suspected case may be considered close contacts and will need to be interviewed by the entry country public health authorities, if the suspect case is confirmed.

So obviously on board no one will sit within 2 seats except for close family members. And indeed the document does suggest that:

In addition to the other health and hygiene measures that must be observed at all times, where allowed by the passenger load, cabin configuration and mass and balance requirements, aeroplane operators should ensure, to the extent possible, physical distancing among passengers. Family members and individuals travelling together as part of the same household can be seated next to each other. The seat allocation process should be modified accordingly.

That 2 seats though…no-one surely will be within that?

Er… not quite. That line above about ‘infrastructure or operational constraints’ makes an unwelcome reappearance:

If physical distancing cannot be guaranteed because of the passenger load, seat configuration or other operational constraints, passengers and crew members on board an aircraft should adhere at all times to all the other preventive measures including strict hand hygiene and respiratory etiquette and should wear a face mask.

But the document notes in its latter pages:

Physical distancing
Current scientific studies and articles32 confirm that in general, the distance that large respiratory droplets travel is 1.5 metres for normal speech and up to 2 metres when coughing. For this reason, aeroplane operators, airport operators and service providers should ensure that physical distancing of 1.5 metres is maintained wherever this is operationally feasible. In case physical distancing cannot be guaranteed because of operational constraints, the airport operator should implement risk mitigation measures, such as providing face masks for the passengers.

So anyone within that 2 seats area is going to be able to cough and likely speak and in such a way as to, if they are infected, spread the disease. And all the good intentions about operational feasibility or risk mitigation measures are not going to allay concerns. Indeed the very same document notes that the ‘risk mitigation measure’ that it explicitly references in the above, that being face masks…

The use of face masks in airports should be considered only as a complementary measure and not as a replacement for established preventive measures, for example physical distancing, respiratory etiquette, meticulous hand hygiene and avoiding touching the face, nose, eyes and mouth.

As noted above, not as comforting as might be thought. And one would have to wonder at the accuracy of the line in the original letter which suggests that:

While other EU member states carefully and sensibly relax restrictions on passengers who fly, Ireland is considering a policy which is not based on EU aviation guidelines, the epidemiology or coordination with other countries.

Not based on the epidemiology? Not so sure about that. Moreover there was strong pushback from Public health experts against these ideas.

Dr Gabriel Scally, speaking on RTÉ’s Today with Sarah McInerney, cautioned against unneccessary travel, saying the last thing Ireland wants to do is start importing new Covid cases from elsewhere.

He said it is a real danger and pointed out that there were a significant number of cases among Chinese people returning home, once restrictions there were lifted.

Dr Scally said there will be a lot of Irish people who want to come home soon and there is a risk they could bring coronavirus cases from other jurisdictions.

Speaking on the same programme, Kingston Mills, Professor of Experimental Immunology at Trinity College Dublin, has said that quarantine measures should be in place for travellers coming from countries which are experiencing a high level of virus.

And given the actual ECDC document and what it contains one would have to take serious issue with O’Leary’s assertion that:

…people can fly “in perfect safety fully supported by the ECDC and the European Safety Agency”.

‘Perfect safety’ clearly means something quite radically different to O’Leary than it does to me.

Which perhaps underlines the following:

Dr Scally said he did not know where Mr O’Leary had received his information, and he told RTÉ Radio’s Today programme he did not think that anyone should take public health advice from the Ryanair boss.

Or perhaps O’Leary could, and should, read the documents he uses to make his case. Whatever their intent they’re not making the case he claims they do.

But where is the political leadership on this? In fairness FG’s Heather Humphries was out fighting against too rapid easing of the lock down, but where are others in FG and FF on this?

Good on SF though for having a clear and concise message:

Sinn Féin’s health spokesperson Louise O’Reilly said that Mr O’Leary was “trying to drum up business for Ryanair. He is not a public health expert”. The TD said she understood that people were frustrated and wanted life to get back to normal but it was important that any move back to normality had to be done safely, guided by public health advice.


1. gypsybhoy69 - June 6, 2020

Fair play to Dr. Scally.


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