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London: The boss of Heathrow Airport has called for the removal of testing for all vaccinated travellers after rules introduced to combat the Omicron variant saw 600,000 flight bookings cancelled in December alone.

The plea coincided with a World Health Organisation (WHO) prediction that half of Europe’s population would be infected with the highly transmissible variant of COVID-19 by March.

Heathrow Airport management has called for an end to compulsory pre-departure testing.Credit:Getty Images

Spain also weighed in, calling on Europe to debate whether the time had come to treat COVID-19 like the flu.

Global travel restrictions introduced by governments in an effort to contain the COVID-19 pandemic have seriously hindered the aviation sector.

Heathrow – the UK’s busiest – recorded just 19.4 million passenger movements in 2021, even fewer than the number recorded in the first year of the pandemic.

The figure represents fewer than one-quarter of the total passenger movements recorded in 2019 – the last year Heathrow operated at normal capacity prior to the virus’ spread from Wuhan in China in late December of that year.

While some governments have reopened their borders, international travel has remained low due to quarantine and testing requirements, in addition to uncertainty caused by travel bans and constantly changing rules.

Heathrow CEO John Holland-Kaye said there was no prospect of the aviation sector recovering for as long as travel restrictions remained in place.

“There are currently travel restrictions, such as testing, on all Heathrow routes – the aviation industry will only fully recover when these are all lifted and there is no risk that they will be reimposed at short notice, a situation which is likely to be years away,” he said in a statement.

The company called for a playbook to be established that would set the rules for how to respond to any future variants.

“We are urging the UK government to remove all testing now for fully vaccinated passengers and to adopt a playbook for any future ‘variants of concern’ that is more predictable, limits additional measures only to passengers from high-risk destinations and allows quarantine at home instead of in a hotel,” a company statement said.

Restrictions introduced around the world in response to the highly contagious Omicron variant saw tens of thousands of flights cancelled over Christmas as soaring cases numbers restricted passenger travel and resulted in flight crews isolating.

Britain last week dropped the requirement for vaccinated passengers to present a negative test before arriving in the country. Even so, travellers must still pay for and take a rapid flow test or a more expensive PCR test within two days of arriving.

The UK recorded 120,000 new cases on Tuesday, but there are indications the country’s Omicron wave has peaked. Growth in new cases declined by 13 per cent on Tuesday compared to the seven days prior – the first fall since the variant arrived in December.

The UK’s Transport Secretary Grant Shapps has said he can see a future where only vaccination status – rather than testing status – is required for international travel.

However, countries worldwide that are maintaining strict measures to try and curb the virus may be slow to follow suit.

Heathrow is still a long way off welcoming pre-pandemic levels of traffic.Credit:AP

France, which on Tuesday recorded more than 335,000 cases in 24 hours, still requires pre-departure and post-arrival tests for passengers from the UK and a host of other countries.

Testing demand from travellers, combined with tough testing protocols in place for schools, has led to lab and pharmacy infrastructure buckling.

Australia, which currently has a higher rate of cases per million people than both the UK and United States, requires all passengers on incoming flights to present a negative PCR test taken in the 72 hours before boarding, with additional tests required after arrival.

While Omicron’s transmissibility has seen cases skyrocket, Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison said this week that the variant’s severity was about 75 per cent less.

On Tuesday, Spain’s Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez called for Europe to debate the way it treats COVID-19, suggesting that it was time for governments to consider treating the virus like the flu.

“It’s a necessary debate – science has given us the answer to protect ourselves,” Sanchez said in interview with radio station Cadena Ser.

“We have to evaluate the evolution of COVID from pandemic to an endemic illness.”

The call came as WHO regional director for Europe, Hans Kluge, warned that Omicron’s transmissibility meant that half of Europe’s population could be infected by March.

“At this rate, the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation forecasts that more than 50 per cent of the population in the region will be infected with Omicron in the next six to eight weeks,” he told a media briefing.

He warned a “west to east tidal wave” of infections could sweep across Europe.

WHO said the world was still “way off” demoting the pandemic to endemic status.

– with Bloomberg

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