June 21, 2021
News Opinion

MICHAEL WOLSEY: I like Michael O’Leary, but his stance on Covid travel is blatant hypocrisy

“Eamon Ryan is a nice man, but he is ineffective,” Michael O’Leary declared in a radio interview. And that was one of the Ryanair chief’s kinder comments about the transport minister.

Mr Ryan  needed to “get the finger out”, he said,  because he was “without doubt one of the worst ministers for transport ever”.

Mr O’Leary lambasted Mr Ryan and the Government for maintaining Covid restrictions on air travel. When the Newstalk interviewer put it to him that ministers were following the advice of  medical experts at Nphet, he conceded this might be the case but he didn’t accept the excuse.

Nphet’s only concern was public health, he said, but the Government had to run the country and ministers shouldn’t feel the need to defer to the civil servants.

Mr O’Leary was then questioned about the forced diversion of a Ryanair flight to Belarus, which he described as “state-sponsored hijacking”.

He was asked if Ryanair would now refuse to fly in Belarus airspace. That was up to “the European authorities”, said Mr O’Leary. “We’ll take our guidance from them.”

His company followed up the boss’s interview with a statement saying the hijacking was “being dealt with by EU safety and security agencies and Nato. Ryanair is fully cooperating with them”.

Mr O’Leary is quite right to defer to the civil servants of Nato and EU agencies on this matter, because they know a lot more than he does about international security and easrtern European politics.

And Mr Ryan is quite right to defer to Nphet when the health of the nation is at stake, because they know a lot more about it than he does.

Mr O’Leary described Government policy on travel restrictions as “arrant nonsense”. His contradictory stance on when to take expert advice is arrant hypocrisy.

He is pleading that a special case be made for a specific interest group and, like everyone who does this, he sees the world through a filter that magnifies the problems of his own group.

In the course of that interview, Mr O’Leary declared that Ireland was the only EU country to which people from the rest of Europe could not freely travel.

In fact, most countries impose some restrictions. Rules change by the day, but at the time Mr O’Leary was speaking, the Belgian government’s website made it clear that “non-essential travel to Belgium is prohibited for people who have their primary residence abroad”.

And the Czech government insisted that “only Czech citizens and those with permanent or temporary residency may enter the Czech Republic”.

Canada was not only banning air travellers but had closed its land border with the United States until June 21 and the USA was insisting on seven-days quarantine for all visitors, including those from the UK, even if they had a negative Covid test.

Many countries have softer restrictions than Ireland and some have more consistent and more sensible restrictions. But the thrust of Mr O’Leary’s comments, that Ireland is some sort of strange outlier with the world’s toughest Covid regime, is just not true.

I have heard this same suggestion from other special interest groups – publicans, restaurateurs, church leaders – that Ireland has had the longest lockdown and is operating the strictest rules. Not true.

Mr O’Leary also suggested that Ireland’s vaccination programme was falling behind. “We were up at the top for a while but now we’re sixteenth or seventeenth,” he told Newstalk.

At the time Mr O’Leary was speaking, figures compiled by CNN put Ireland fourth in the EU for the percentage of the population fully vaccinated, behind Malta, Hungary and Germany. The rate for most EU countries is pretty similar so this is no great triumph, but neither is it a failure. And, here again, Ireland is not an outlier.

The success of the vaccine programme will open air travel soon and, in time, will  grant the wishes of all the special interest groups. They have all suffered and I hope they make a successful recovery.

But given the sacrifices everyone has made, we should not rush at the final fences. We have waited 15 months for a return to normality. Another month won’t kill us, but opening too fast just might.

I like Michael O’Leary.  I think  he’s great at running an airline. But when it comes to guiding the country out of a pandemic I would, like Eamon Ryan, prefer to take my advice from Nphet.

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