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Couple arrested over Covid test as vaccines challenge airlines

December 8, 2020 Headline News No Comments Email Email

With coronavirus vaccine due to begin rolling out this week in the UK, the arrest of two airline passengers in the US after a positive Covid-19 test highlights the challenges airlines face in finding an infallible way of telling who has received the approved jabs.

Britain last week became the first western country to license a vaccine against Covid, opening the way for mass immunisation with the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, beginning this week. Vaccines are rolling out fast, with those most at risk scheduled for inoculation first.

Qantas Group chief executive Alan Joyce said last week he did not expect international travel to resume until July 2021, “beyond an increase in trans-Tasman flying to New Zealand, though this could improve depending on the speed of vaccines rolling out”.

Joyce has already made clear that proof of vaccination against coronavirus will be a non-negotiable prerequisite for boarding Qantas international flights – except perhaps for flights to New Zealand.

Other airlines are likely to take a similar stand. They have their crews to think of, as well as passengers. Who wants to convey people who refuse to get vaccinated against a highly infectious, potentially fatal disease? Who wants to fly with such passengers? In a snap poll of frequent flyers conducted by Qantas last week, 87% of customers said they would take a Covid vaccine if it was required to travel internationally.

Certain snags persist. The rapid rollout of vaccines risks beating the development of an infallible way of telling who has received them. Experts have raised questions about the accuracy of antibody tests at detecting asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic infections, and thus their use for general screenings.

IATA is working on a global, standardised way of validating and authenticating all country regulations regarding Covid-19 passenger travel requirements. The IATA Travel Pass will incorporate four open-sourced and interoperable modules which can be combined to meet the requirements.

As IATA says: “The main priority is to get people travelling again safely. In the immediate term that means establishing confidence in governments that systematic pre-departure Covid-19 testing can work as a replacement for quarantine requirements. And that will eventually develop into a vaccine program.”

In the meantime, however, airlines are striking obstacles. A Hawaiian couple who flew from San Francisco International Airport to the Hawaiian island of Kaua’i have been arrested for boarding the flight when they knew they were positive for Covid-19.

United Airlines runs flights to Hawaii from the US mainland for passengers who have been screened and tested prior to boarding.

ABC Eyewitness News in the US said the man and woman arrested are residents of Kaua’i who tested positive during pre-travel screenings before boarding their United Airlines flight from San Francisco over the weekend.

They are charged with second-degree reckless endangerment and are currently in isolation. Contact tracing is underway to alert anyone who needs to go into quarantine. Second degree reckless endangerment is a misdemeanour in Hawaii, punishable by up to one year in jail and a fine of up to US$2000.

The two cases have lifted the island of Kaua’i’s total number of positive Covid cases from 15 to 17. Whereas the testing regime previously let people enter without quarantine if they were tested and approved before boarding, from now on all travellers arriving on Kaua’i are subject to a 14-day self-quarantine regardless of testing, the outlet reported.

Channel KGO-TV in Hawaii received the following statement from United Airlines:

“The health and safety of our employees and customers is our highest priority, which is why we have various policies and procedures in place as part of a multi-layered approach to create a safer travel environment. Prior to traveling, all United customers are required to complete a ‘Ready to Fly’ checklist acknowledging they have not been diagnosed with Covid-19 in the last 14 days. We are investigating this matter further to assess these passengers’ ability to fly on United in the future.”

Written by Peter Needham

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