Transport bosses call on governments across world to ease Covid-19 restrictions

Airline, shipping and trucking bosses have joined union leaders in calling for governments around the world to ease Covid-19 restrictions on transport workers to help avoid a Christmas supply chain crisis.

Industry representatives from around the world issued a joint call on Wednesday for coordinated action from national governments to simplify border restrictions.

The cost of transporting goods across the world had become almost negligible in recent decades, but the pandemic disruption to factories, shipping and customer demand has caused chronic delays to cross-border deliveries and led to record shipping container prices.

Willie Walsh, the former boss of British Airways, who now serves as director general of the International Air Transport Association (IATA), called for government restrictions to be eased to avoid disruption during Christmas and warned that further transport cost increases were likely.

“There is definitely a risk,” said Walsh. “What we’re facing is a crisis from restrictions, not from the virus itself.

“Demand is very high, but supply is very disrupted. Without question, there is a risk of disruption as demand rises.”

IATA was joined by the International Chamber of Shipping, International Road Transport Union (IRU) and the International Transport Workers’ Federation in arguing that reducing and harmonising restrictions such as vaccine paperwork and testing requirements for transport workers could help ease the pressure at Christmas. The huge variation in restrictions between neighbouring countries causes delays and contradicts scientific advice, they said.

Shipping routes are particularly strained between the US and China, the two largest economies in the world, while air cargo in the broader Asia-Pacific region has also been hit hard by travel restrictions.

In the UK, the lack of qualified lorry drivers has added to a fuel crisis. The UK government on Wednesday deployed its reserve tanker fleet to try to keep petrol stations supplied around the country, amid shortages that led to panic buying.

Umberto de Pretto, the IRU’s secretary general, said there would “absolutely” be problems at Christmas, as companies are already facing problems with their transport plans for the period, which is crucial for retailers and producers of consumer goods, food and drink.

“There will be disruption, there will be issues, because no one is addressing the problems,” he said. “How can you drive the recovery without drivers?”

IATA’s Walsh said continued travel restrictions were “unnecessary, completely out of proportion to the risk that is faced”, citing the 36 questions on the UK’s passenger locator form. “I doubt anybody is reading the answer to those questions,” he said.

The lobby groups and unions said the World Health Organization (WHO) should prioritise transport workers for Covid-19 vaccinations. However, they said they were against mandatory vaccines for workers for now because of unequal access to vaccines in different countries.

Chicago-based United Airlines on Wednesday said it would fire 600 workers who have not taken mandatory vaccines, but the policy is thought to be unlikely to be introduced in some countries such as the UK.

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