Travel news latest: Covid-related staff shortages threaten Christmas travel chaos

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Huge numbers of transport staff forced off work due to isolating with Covid could cause travel chaos this Christmas as the omicron variant continues to spread at a rapid rate. 

Already, reports have emerged of cancelled flights and issues at baggage reclaim as UK airports grapple with staff absences. At least six British Airways flights from Heathrow were axed yesterday, and there have been reports of long lines at border control. The airline blamed a combination of fog and staff shortages for the delays and the baggage issues.

Passengers have taken to social media to complain, with Twitter user Elliott Sands claiming he waited three hours at Heathrow only to be told he wouldn’t be receiving his luggage. 

Meanwhile, long-distance train companies have warned of cancellations and delays over the festive period. East Coast Main Line operator LNER has cancelled 16 trains a day until Christmas Eve between London, Lincoln and Leeds due to “an increased level of absence in drivers and train managers due to coronavirus”. Similarly, Avanti West Coast, which operates between London and Scotland, said passengers could face short-notice disruption due to train crew availability.

Covid self-isolation rules have also forced major UK attractions to temporarily shut, with both Edinburgh Castle and the Natural History Museum closing their doors this week. 

Scroll down for the latest updates.

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Poland introduces negative test requirement for British travellers

Poland now requires visitors from non-Schengen countries, including the UK, to show proof of a recent negative test to enter the country, regardless of vaccination status.

The test can be either a rapid lateral flow or more costly PCR, but must be taken no longer than 24 hours before departure.

The FCDO travel advice pages suggest the test can also be taken on arrival. ”You may be able to do the test at some airports on arrival no later than three hours after your arrival, please check the airport website before you travel.”

Unvaccinated travellers must also quarantine for 14 days. 

Poll: Would you like to see face masks become a permanent requirement on planes?

Dr Anthony Fauci, the White House’s chief medical advisor, yesterday suggested that face masks on planes may be needed indefinitely.

Asked in an interview whether he thought there would be a time that face masks on planes would not be needed, he replied: “I don’t think so.”

Dr Fauci added: “I think when you’re dealing with a closed space, even though the filtration is good, that you want to go that extra step.  

Do you agree with Dr Fauci? Vote in our poll, below. 

Air travel in Asia just 5 per cent of 2019 levels, says airline boss

An airline boss has warned that air traffic in Asia Pacific remains lower than much of the world due to continuing draconian restrictions from governments in the region.

Subhas Menon, the Association of Asia Pacific Airlines (AAPA) director general, told a Capa Centre for Aviation webinar:

I wouldn’t say a recovery has started. We need China and India to open up.

In October, air traffic in Pacific Asia was 5 per cent of what it was in 2019. Compare that to North America, Europe, the Middle East and Latin America.

We see roadmaps to open up, but all of a sudden now we have Omicron. It boils down to what governments have done and to vaccine inequity.

In richer countries, 75 per cent of the population have been vaccinated. In poorer countries just 6 per cent or under have been vaccinated.

There is a lot of evidence of pent-up demand. Every time there is an opening or a travel corridor there is a surge in interest. What dampens it is not the virus, it’s the government response.

Most countries [in the region] have really been grounded for the last two years.

We are long past [calling for] the harmonisation of measures, but if they could just be streamlined [and] governments did not persist with knee jerk reactions.

New Zealand postpones border reopening

New Zealand will delay the start of its tentative border reopening until the end of February amid fears over the omicron variant. 

The country had previously planned to restart quarantine-free travel for its citizens and residents in Australia by mid-January. Some foreign tourists were set to be allowed to travel from April.

The original timeline would have hassle-free allowed travel during New Zealand’s peak summer holdiays

When announcing the delay, the government’s Covid-19 response minister, Chris Hipkins, said:

“There’s no doubt this is disappointing and will upset many holiday plans, but it’s important to set these changes out clearly today so they can have time to consider those plans.” 

More rail operators warn of festive disruption

More rail companies have warned of delays and cancellations due to Covid-related staff shortages. 

CrossCountry said it is “expecting widespread disruption to our services this week”.

It went on: “Please pull your journey forward to sooner rather than later to get to your end destination as early as possible.”

Cancellations have been made on several of its routes, including Manchester to Bournemouth via Birmingham; Bristol to Paignton, Devon; Cardiff to Nottingham; and Birmingham to Stansted Airport.

Govia Thameslink Railway said a train crew shortage means there will be a reduced service across the Southern, Thameslink and Great Northern network until the end of the day on Christmas Eve.

Greater Anglia said it has removed trains from its timetables due to falling passenger numbers “as people follow advice to work from home”.

It added: “We also have to plan for our staff being affected by the omicron variant, especially as we’re already starting to see the early signs of its impact, to ensure we can continue to provide a reliable service.”

Joe Biden refuses to lock down the US despite omicron making up 70 per cent of US cases 

President Joe Biden has no intentions of “locking the country down” despite a surge in Covid-19 cases in the US, the White House has said.

The omicron variant now makes up 70 per cent of cases in America, according to an analysis by the CDC, but Mr Biden, in a speech he is to deliver on Tuesday, will not announce any new measures, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said.

“This is not a speech about locking the country down,” Ms Psaki told reporters. “This is a speech outlining and being direct and clear with the American people about the benefits of being vaccinated.

Read more on our Covid live blog.

London cancels New Year’s Eve celebration

Trafalgar Square’s New Year’s Eve celebration has been called off  ”in the interests of public safety”, Mayor Sadiq Khan has announced.

The event will be replaced with live broadcast celebrating the capital and its “defining moments of 2021”. 

Mr Khan said:

This will be very disappointing for many Londoners, but we must take the right steps to reduce the spread of the virus.

I’m proud that we will still have an incredible broadcast spectacular to watch on our screens, which will showcase our great city to the rest of the world.

British Airways cancels Bangkok flights until October 2022

British Airways has suspended all flights to Bangkok until October 2022, in signs that confidence in travel to Asia remains low. 

The carrier has also cancelled its flights to Hong Kong until March 2022, after it was announced that UK arrivals, including cabin crew,  must quarantine in a government-run centre.  

In a statement the airline said:

We apologise to customers whose travel plans are disrupted. Where a customer’s flight is cancelled, we always contact them to offer options including a full refund. Customers who are unable to travel, or choose not to, can also continue to change their flights or request a voucher for future use as part of our Book with Confidence policy, which has been available since the beginning of the pandemic.

Feature: ‘Being quarantined in a Maldives villa sounds dreamy – but it’s turning into a nightmare’

A luxury beach resort on an Indian Ocean island quickly became a ‘tropical Alcatraz’ after a Covid test came back positive, writes Tamara Abraham.

Tamara and her family are trapped in a Maldivian beach villa with their toddlers – but supplies are running out and there's little clarity on what's next

Tamara and her family are trapped in a Maldivian beach villa with their toddlers – but supplies are running out and there’s little clarity on what’s next

I am writing this on the deck of my Maldives beach villa, looking out at pristine white sand fringed with palm trees and turquoise sea. It is idyllic, exactly what I hoped for when we booked a last-minute package break earlier this month with my parents, as well as my sister and her family.

There is a catch though. I’m not allowed to leave. No sunbathing on the sand, no swimming in the sea, and definitely no wandering along the beach. A Maldives Health Protection Agency (HPA) official patrols the area with a clipboard to check. We had been due to fly home on Saturday, refreshed, restored and ready for a busy Christmas period during which we would be juggling work and family commitments, but after my mother tested positive for Covid in her pre-departure PCR (actually, my father was summoned and informed of her results; gender equality still has some way to go here), we were all put into compulsory quarantine ‘because we share a booking reference number’. 

Read the full story.

Breaking: Thailand reinstates mandatory Covid quarantine

Reuters reports that Thailand will reinstate its mandatory quarantine period for foreign visitors from Tuesday.

A government spokeswoman said the measure will return due to concerns over the spread of the omicron variant.

It has not been confirmed whether Thailand will revert to its ‘sandbox’ scheme, where visitors could visit certain areas of the country, such as the island of Phuket, without the need to isolate.

Thailand has only been open for quarantine-free travel since November.

Taiwan’s ‘zero-Covid’ strategy: How much longer can it keep out variants?

Taoyuan International Airport 

Taoyuan International Airport 

Credit:
 REUTERS

Like the Delta variant before it, Omicron was allowed to enter the UK and freely circulate. But since the start of the pandemic, Taiwan has been spared from a devastating Covid-19 death toll through pursuing a “zero Covid” strategy with tight border controls and 14-day quarantines.

Taiwan’s first line of defence begins at Taoyuan International Airport – which handled 46.5 million passengers in 2018, making it the world’s 11th busiest airport.

When Pieter Funnekotter, a Canadian businessman, landed there in November, returning from a work trip to Nigeria and India, he said the corridors were deserted.

Passengers were first met on the jet bridge by officials in PPE who separated people from Taiwan’s “red list” of high-risk countries, which until recently included the UK, to be shepherded to government quarantine centres.

Others continued as normal to the first of several document checks before immigration where everyone is required to provide a working mobile phone for the authorities to carry out quarantine health checks. Sim cards can be purchased and phones rented out.

Read on, here. 

Kuwait to make Covid booster jab compulsory for incoming travellers

Kuwait will require arriving travellers to have had a Covid booster jab if more than nine months have passed since their second dose of a vaccine, reports Reuters.

Kuwait will also all require incoming travellers to quarantine at home until they receive a negative PCR test result.

Other countries to take into account booster doses include Austria, which requires travellers who have not received a third jab to take a Covid test.

Qatar cabin crew don full PPE over omicron fears

Reports have emerged that from today Qatar Airways cabin crew will wear full PPE on board flights due to fears over the highly contagious omicron variant.

What happened yesterday?

A recap of yesterday’s top stories:

  • Thailand considers ending quarantine-free travel
  • Germany bans UK arrivals and plans to limit social gatherings after Christmas
  • Switzerland tightens restrictions on unvaccinated
  • Greece’s new testing rules come into force
  • Italy considers increased measures amid omicron fears ​
  • Natural History Museum closes due to Covid-19

Now, on with today’s travel news.

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