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Transport industry calls on UN to end Covid chaos for transport workers

[ September 29, 2021   //   ]

Global air, road and sea groups and trade unions have called on the UN General Assembly to end the hotch-potch of inconsistent and unpredictable travel restrictions that has brought chaos to the global supply chain in the wake of the Covid crisis.

In an open letter published on 29 September, the day of the UNGA’s General Debate in New York, the International Air Transport Association (IATA), the International Road Transport Union (IRU), the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS) and the International Transport Workers’ Federation made an urgent plea to world heads of government to restore freedom of movement to airline, shipping and road transport workers. It also called for them to be given priority for vaccines, along with a standardized process for demonstrating health credentials.

At a press conference called by the four groups, International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) secretary general Stephen Cotton said delays at national borders and “small-minded thinking” had clogged up transport operations, with “literally hourly rule changes”  on Covid testing and vaccination for truck drivers.

IATA director general Willie Walsh said that air crews had played a vital role in getting PPE, vaccines and other vital goods to where they were needed, but there had been many instances of them being trapped on board their aircraft for up to 36 hours, unable to disembark because of Covid restrictions. These draconian rules had continued long after they were proved to be unnecessary because of coordinated governments’ failure to take a coordinated approach, often ignoring International Civil Aviation Organisation rulings.

Willie Walsh said that there was no evidence that air travellers or aircrew were at higher risk of carrying the Covid vaccine than the general population – rather the reverse, in fact. Air transport, he said, was “a controlled environment”.

He added: “This has gone on long enough. We need governments to recognise that the measures are completely out of proportion to the risk.”

IRU secretary general Umberto de Preto said that Covid measures at borders were “unclear, uncoordinated and just thrown at the industry”. A year and a half into the crisis, there was still no global solution, just constantly changing rules that had forced the IRU to send no less that 1,000 flash news alerts to its members.

“The situation is inhumane,” he said. “In the UK last Christmas we had 10,000 drivers stuck on the border, and all the government could say was that it was ‘too bad’.”

Some borders could take two days, or in extreme cases two weeks to negotiate, while many of the measures imposed were “misguided, useless and in some cases, dangerous”. The safest approach would be to allow drivers to stay in their cabs at borders and there are UN-approved electronic systems available to inform Customs and transfer vaccination or test certificates, but many administrations were refusing to use them.

Truck drivers had been hailed as the heroes of the pandemic but that had not prevented a huge shortfall in recruitment. The UK, said Umberto de Preto, currently faced a shortfall of 100,000 drivers and the only government response was to agree to issue work permits that would perhaps reduce the figure by perhaps 5,000.

ICS secretary general Guy Platten added that seafarers had arguably received the rawest deal. Some faced being inoculated six times – because not all governments recognise the efficacy of all vaccines and there had even been a case of the body of a deceased seafarer having to be left on board ship for several months. Many seafarers were denied treatment for ailments such as toothache.

Guy Platten warned that with Christmas approaching, many would be facing empty shop shelves, while Willie Walsh predicted that the airfreight crisis would worsen. “Demand is increasing while supply is decreasing,” he warned.

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