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Debunked: Do European air travel guidelines show there is no need to quarantine visitors from overseas?

Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary made a number of claims about Covid-19 and air travel on radio this week.

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THIS WEEK, RYANAIR criticised the government’s introduction of a mandatory quarantine on overseas visitors entering Ireland. 

The measure has proven unpopular with the company’s CEO Michael O’Leary, who accused Ireland of imposing the strictest lockdown restrictions in Europe.

In a radio interview on Wednesday, O’Leary pointed to new European guidance which says it is safe for flights to resume, and accused the government’s quarantine of being ineffective.

He also claimed that travel restrictions have been lifted in Spain, Italy and Greece, and said that China has continued to allow air travel without a significant surge in new Covid-19 cases.

However, each of these claims is misleading and they do not support O’Leary’s arguments for the government to ditch its plans for a mandatory quarantine. 

The claims

Speaking on Morning Ireland on RTÉ Radio 1 yesterday, Michael O’Leary said the government’s plans for a two-week quarantine had no basis in science.

Calling for a return to commercial air travel, the Ryanair CEO claimed that recent advice by the European Centre for Disease Control (ECDC) showed how this could be done without the need to isolate passengers, saying: 

The European Centre for Disease Control and the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) ten days ago published a comprehensive document of safety measures which allows airlines to go back flying. What did they recommend? Face masks, temperature controls and hand sanitisation…
[The ECDC] say ‘go back flying’ but with passengers and cabin crew wearing face masks, everyone wearing face masks in terminal buildings, where social distancing isn’t possible. That is the science. That is the advice. It’s safe to go back flying.

O’Leary also pointed to the performances of other countries to support his claim that quarantines for air passengers are “ineffective” if they do not start until after a passenger leaves their destination airport.

He claimed that Italy was lifting its travel restrictions at the same time that Ireland was imposing a two-week quarantine on foreign visitors.

Furthermore, he said that Italy and Spain have “opened up for tourism and removed all travel restrictions”, before later repeating a version of the claim:

Spain has removed all travel restrictions. So has Italy. So has Greece. Irish families are booking holidays abroad and can do so in perfect safety, fully supported by the science of the ECDC.

He also suggested that air travel in China had resumed without the virus spreading significantly there:

Airlines have been flying now in China for more than two months. How many cases of Covid did they have in China yesterday? Seven. 

Two-week quarantine

First of all, let’s look at the measures Ireland is imposing upon those who enter the country.

From Thursday, anyone who arrives in Ireland will be asked to self-isolate for two weeks and will be required by law to fill out a form.

That form – known as the Passenger Locator Form – will allow authorities to carry out follow-up checks to ensure that people are staying where they claimed they were.

Only those travelling from Northern Ireland, essential supply chain workers (that is, air and ship crew and hauliers), those travelling elsewhere without leaving the point of entry, aircraft and ship workers, and accredited diplomats are exempt from this.

That means everyone else – whether tourists or Irish people returning home – has to fill out the form and isolate for two weeks. Failure to fill out the form is considered an offence.

All of this is happening because of fears Ireland could end up importing cases of Covid-19 from abroad.

This time last year, more than 1.5 million people travelled into and out of the country – a figure that slumped by 99% in April as the country went into an effective lockdown.

As the country opens up again, there are concerns that if travel into Ireland rises, new cases of Covid-19 will arrive too and end up spreading through the community.

This has already been seen in other countries: in China, where the virus originated last year, authorities reported new cases of the virus from abroad as the number of domestically transmitted cases reached zero for the first time.

Air travel guidelines

This brings us to Michael O’Leary’s claims about the safety of air travel.

In his first claim, he noted that the ECDC and EASA had recently published an outline of  safety measures which allowed airlines to go back flying, involving the use of face masks, temperature controls and hand sanitisation.

He also said: “It’s safe to go back flying.”

The relevant document, the Covid-19 Aviation Health Safety Protocol, was issued on 21 May. It’s true to say that its guidance relies on the key principles outlined by O’Leary: physical distancing, the use of face masks and “scrupulous and frequent” hand hygiene.

In an accompanying release on its website, the EASA also quotes European Commissioner for Transport Adina Valean as saying the protocol should “reassure passengers that it is safe for them to fly”.

But crucially, the protocol only details what should happen from the beginning to the end of a passenger’s air travel journey – and not what should happen after they leave the airport at their arrival destination

Although the document doesn’t mention quarantine for incoming passengers, it does note that different countries have their own requirements to prevent the spread of Covid-19:

It is essential that while allowing people movements within or between countries, there are measures in place to minimise the risk of the resurgence of sustained community transmission. 

In fact, a more recent document by the ECDC – published on 26 May – notes how continental travel may lead to the spread of Covid-19 across the EU again.

“Travel and tourism could lead to an increased risk of SARS-CoV-2 [Covid-19] transmission amplification in at least two ways,” it reads.

“The first is related to mobility of people and the risk of transmission following arrival at the point of destination, and the second to the gathering of people at various venues such as airports, resorts and similar settings…

“Travel-related introduction and tourism-related spread within the EU/EEA and the UK contributed substantially to the transmission across and within countries during the early phase of the Covid-19 pandemic.”

The same document also suggests that countries in which there is no community transmission of the virus may consider a quarantine for overseas visitors, if there is still community transmission at the traveller’s place of origin.

However, it does note that nations which do introduce such a quarantine should provide adequately-equipped facilities for visitors who have no possibility of home quarantine.

Safety from Covid-19

Meanwhile, the protocol also outlines a number of contingencies that could occur should a passenger or crew member show symptoms of Covid-19 during a flight, or after they arrive at their destination.

It outlines what to do if a passenger shows symptoms on board, and addresses the possibility that asymptomatic passengers may board a flight.

There are also contingencies for isolating close contacts and travel companions of individuals who may show symptoms once they have boarded, as well as crew members who provide services to them.

“Passengers who were seated two 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,” the protocol reads.

While the document notes that no confirmed transmissions of Covid-19 have taken place on an aircraft so far, the measures outlined within it acknowledge that it is a possibility.

Asked about O’Leary’s comments on Today with Sarah McInerney on RTÉ Radio, EASA’s Executive Director Patrick Ky agreed with the Ryanair CEO and said the agency believed it was safe to fly if the measures contained in the protocol were implemented.

However, while Ky also said that although the measures made air travel safe, he accepted that there was a chance, albeit slim, that passengers could contract Covid-19 while flying.

“The guidelines define all the possible and practical measures to make air travel as safe as possible despite Covid-19, but of course we cannot guarantee 100% prevention against infection,” he explained.

It is therefore not entirely correct to imply that air passengers are safe from Covid-19.

It is likewise misleading to suggest that the document shows scientifically that there is no need for passengers to quarantine after they land at their arrival destination.  

Restrictions in other countries

O’Leary also claimed that other countries had begun lifting travel restrictions, comparing this to Ireland’s introduction of a mandatory quarantine.

He specifically name-checked Italy as lifting travel restrictions while the Irish government introduced the quarantine for overseas visitors.

He also mentioned Spain and Greece as countries where travel restrictions have been lifted, while claiming that Ireland’s Covid-19 response was among the strictest in Europe.

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And he noted that airlines have been flying in China for more than two months without a significant rise in Covid-19 restrictions, implying that no quarantine was required for this to happen.

However, there are forms of travel restrictions in each of these countries, and mandatory quarantines in place for overseas travellers in all four.

Travel advice from the Department of Foreign Affairs explains that Italian authorities currently require anyone entering Italy by any means to self-isolate for 14 days and notify authorities about where they’re staying.

However, restrictions on foreign travel will be relaxed from 3 June, when those entering the country from another EU member state will not be required to isolate for two weeks.

Likewise, the Department of Foreign Affairs says that all those who enter Spain from 15 May are required to self-isolate for two weeks following their arrival.

Those who arrive there are also asked to provide details of where they will be staying and may be contacted by Spanish health authorities during their self-isolation period.

But this week, the Spanish government announced that tourists who visit from 1 July will be allowed to do so without having to quarantine.

Greece and China

In Greece, foreign travellers are required to undergo a test for Covid-19 upon arrival, and must spend 24 hours in a secure location while waiting for their results.

Even those who test negative are required to self-isolate for two weeks after their arrival.

International flights from some countries have been allowed from this week, and travellers from abroad will not have quarantine or be tested for the coronavirus, but other flights are not expected to resume until July either.

On Friday, the Greek government listed 29 countries from which it will accept visitors starting in mid-June – although this list did not include Ireland or the UK.

Meanwhile in China, new arrivals are likewise required to isolate. Some flights are re-directed to other airports in China, and some locations also require mandatory testing upon arrival.

Ireland’s introduction of a mandatory quarantine for those arriving into the country is not unique.

Asked to clarify O’Leary’s comments, a spokeswoman for Ryanair said his claims about the lifting of restrictions referred to 1 July, when the company will resume flying. However, this was not clear during his interview on Morning Ireland.

O’Leary’s claim that other countries are lifting their restrictions is correct, but it is misleading to suggest that they are doing so at the same time that Ireland is introducing a quarantine.

***

There is a lot of false news and scaremongering being spread in Ireland at the moment about coronavirus. Here are some practical ways for you to assess whether the messages that you’re seeing – especially on WhatsApp – are true or not. 

STOP, THINK AND CHECK 

Look at where it’s coming from. Is it someone you know? Do they have a source for the information (e.g. the HSE website) or are they just saying that the information comes from someone they know? A lot of the false news being spread right now is from people claiming that messages from ‘a friend’ of theirs. Have a look yourself – do a quick Google search and see if the information is being reported elsewhere. 

Secondly, get the whole story, not just a headline. A lot of these messages have got vague information (“all the doctors at this hospital are panicking”) and don’t mention specific details. This is often – but not always a sign – that it may not be accurate. 

Finally, see how you feel after reading it. A lot of these false messages are designed to make people feel panicked. They’re deliberately manipulating your feelings to make you more likely to share it. If you feel panicked after reading something, check it out and see if it really is true.

TheJournal.ie’s FactCheck is a signatory to the International Fact-Checking Network’s Code of Principles. You can read it here. For information on how FactCheck works, what the verdicts mean, and how you can take part, check out our Reader’s Guide here. You can read about the team of editors and reporters who work on the factchecks here

Have you gotten a message on WhatsApp or Facebook or Twitter about coronavirus that you’re not sure about and want us to check it out? Message or mail us and we’ll look into debunking it. WhatsApp: 085 221 4696 or Email: answers@thejournal.ie.  

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