India-UK Vaccine Row Shows Pandemic Politics Will Impact International Travel

·4-min read

Last week, the Indian government announced that travellers arriving in India from the UK will have to undergo mandatory quarantine even if they are fully vaccinated. This follows a similar measure taken by the UK government where it initially refused to recognize the Indian-manufactured Covidshield vaccine and now the CoWIN certificate, insisting that Indian citizens if vaccinated with Covidshield must undergo quarantine on arrival in the UK. Interestingly, travellers to the UK from many other countries are not facing the same restrictions. Since international travel is primarily undertaken by air, this impacts aviation directly. This instance is not anecdotal and highlights the emerging challenges of aero-politics.

Aero-politics deals with the politics behind aviation. The two, namely aviation and politics, have always been intertwined given the nature of the industry and also because most airlines and airports historically were owned and operated by respective governments. Furthermore, aviation has a tendency to generate headlines and in many ways influence the narrative. Throw in the impact on jobs, economic growth and taxes, and intense involvement by policymakers and politicians is a given.

As countries around world race towards vaccinating their citizens, air travel is continuously witnessing complex and asymmetric rules—rules that speak to each country, their politics, to virus containment strategies and public opinion. Consequently, air travel that depends on collective, agreed upon, universally accepted and uniform standards faces an atmosphere where standards are increasingly becoming non-uniform and non-standard. Countries are mandating health protocols and in many cases this is going beyond the purview of aviation. Included in this are the negotiation on "bubble" arrangements that allow passage for flyers between two countries and which come with their own set of rules and relaxations. The politics of the pandemic is clearly spilling over to the skies and vice-versa.

The most current challenge of aero-politics deals with non-standard and disharmonious rules. These, in turn, are influenced by virus containment and elimination strategies adopted by each country. Perhaps, this is best reflected in their varied arrival procedures. Consider the difference in arrival formalities between Hong Kong, Singapore and the UK. In the case of Hong Kong, an RT-PCR test along with hotel quarantine at designated hotels is required. Further, the country a traveller has visited 21 days before arrival has various implications. In the case of Singapore, again an RT-PCR test is required and depending on the country one is arriving from, a seven-day quarantine is strictly mandated. In the case of the UK, a colour-coded system is followed where countries are categorized under red-lists and "non-red" lists. Majority of fully vaccinated travellers arriving from non-red list countries are free to arrive without restrictions while those coming from red list destinations have to quarantine for 10 days. In all cases, the rules can change within a few days and indeed they have. And, this does not even include VISA restrictions that further complicate travel.

This frustration was expressed in the recent annual general meeting of the International Air Travel Association (IATA) where the Director General expressed dismay over the failure by governments around the world towards regularizing border restrictions and harmonizing rules for COVID-19. As he put it, "COVID-19 is present in all parts of the world and there is little evidence to support blanket border restrictions and the economic havoc they create."

These disharmonious rules continue to impact demand in no small measure. The pain of travel gets amplified over any pleasure that may have been associated with it. Not to say anything about the cost that is impacted by supply and demand dynamics. And the challenges of muted demand then impact jobs and employment.

Data confirms the same. Healthy and profitable airlines like Singapore Airlines, Qatar Airways and Lufthansa are sitting on losses that exceed billions of dollars. Singapore Airlines in a recent filing disclosed that it had burned through the $6.5 billion credit that it raised; Qatar Airways reported $4 billion loss for the year; and Lufthansa reported an operating loss of $1.7 billion. For India, the losses will exceed $4 billion for the year. Collectively, global airlines stand to lose $51.8 billion in 2021 and will only stabilize towards the end of 2022. Even so, with public opinion for countries around the world squarely centred on the management or mismanagement of the pandemic, which for the time being is overshadowing economic challenges, the losses may not be a priority area for politicians the world over.

All indications are that COVID-19 is here to stay and the world will have to learn to live with it while enforcing measures that minimize risk. But with no respite from complex and asymmetric rules that speak to each country, their politics, virus containment strategies and public opinion, the challenge of aero-politics remains.

Satyendra Pandey is the Managing Partner for Aviation Services firm AT-TV. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the stand of this publication.

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