WHO warns travellers: 'If it's anywhere, it's everywhere'
A World Health Organization is urging travellers to wear masks on planes and keep themselves constantly informed as COVID-19 cases surge again in some countries, prompting new restrictions in places like Australia. Australian airlines enforced the wearing of face masks on all flights in and out of Melbourne, just days before a coronavirus-positive passenger flew from Melbourne to Sydney on a Jetstar flight. The woman, in her 30s, flew the popular leg on Saturday, July 25, after Melbourne’s mandatory ruling came into effect on Thursday last week. Passengers who were seated near her have been ordered to self-isolate for 14 days.
All airlines have been offering passengers “wellness packs” including face masks and hand sanitiser since flights resumed, but the wearing of masks has not been mandatory.
Qantas and Jetstar updated its policy last week for flights in and out of Victoria. Virgin followed on Monday. All three airlines recommend wearing masks on all flights outside of Victoria. Passengers are still being seated next to each other on flights, including in the middle seats. All airlines and government health bodies maintain this is a safe practice, due to the on-board filters that have been amped up to remove “99.9 per cent of all particles including viruses”, according to Jetstar’s website. Regional Express (REX) is the only airline to have made masks compulsory on all flights.
As-safe-as-possible flying v not flying at all
Although Australians must still follow social distancing regulations in public, airlines have openly said the practice isn’t possible on board flights because it is simply not economically viable. “To get the four metres squared, you’ll end up with 22 people on an aircraft of 180 seats … and the airfares are nine to 10 times as much,” Qantas boss Alan Joyce has said in the past. In May, deputy chief medical officer Michael Kidd said middle seating was safe, given the pre-screening passenger procedures in place, coupled with the low rates of community transmission. “We have very low numbers of community transmission occurring in Australia, so the chances of sitting next to somebody who is asymptomatic is very, very low in Australia at this time,” Professor Kidd told a press conference. However, the recent spike in cases in Victoria have been linked in part to “significant community transmission”.
The federal government has maintained its advice, and urged all passengers to do the right thing and cancel travel plans if they feel unwell or have been in contact with a known case. Qantas confirmed to The New Daily it was acting on continued advice the risk of contracting COVID-19 on an aircraft was “extremely low”. “The medical advice is the key driver of whether we need social distancing on the aircraft, and the advice says it is not needed,” the company’s group medical director Dr Ian Hosegood said. “As well as not being required from a medical perspective, social distancing on an aircraft isn’t practical the way it is on the ground, and given the low transmission risk on board, we don’t believe it’s necessary in order to be safe. The extra measures we’ve put place will reduce the risk even further.”
Aviation expert and Monash University professor Greg Bamber told The New Daily last month he believes airlines should rethink seating passengers in middle rows, for safety reasons. Professor Bamber said he was sympathetic to the battle airlines faced, in a business that already operated on extremely thin margins. “This physical distancing issue illustrates a conflict between competing logics,” he said. “A logic of business and economics is that it is desirable to have more people travelling and to waive physical distancing on planes, but a logic of health care and safety is that it is desirable to be cautious and minimise the number of people travelling and to enforce physical distancing.”
Virgin Australia on Monday released a video featuring its chief medical officer, assuring passengers travel was safe, providing they followed health and safety instructions from airline staff.
Photo: TND Qantas CEO Alan Joyce has maintained the risk of coronavirus transmission is low on aeroplanes.