Delivering an inclusive COP26 in the age of COVID-19 requires more than vaccines
The UK government announced last week that it would make vaccines available to people attending COP26 in Glasgow. But even vaccinated, negotiators from vulnerable nations face logistical and financial barriers to travel to Glasgow amid border closures and quarantine measures.
The announcement offers a path to vaccination for many, including delegates from the least developed countries (LDCs), which despite being home to 14% of the world’s population, have only administered just over 1% of global doses.
But vaccinations are just one step. Many logistical and financial barriers remain for prospective participants to what the UK has billed “the most inclusive COP ever”.
For negotiators coming from a least developed country, reaching the UK has never been easy.
Obstacles on the way to Glasgow
First, you need a visa, which in most cases you cannot get at home. You will need to travel to another country and apply in-person, waiting there until a decision is made. Online visa applications, available to other UK visitors, are not available to you.
With most countries currently enforcing some level of COVID-19 restrictions, many nations won’t allow travel beyond their borders or are restricting people returning from abroad. This is the case in many island nations.
This means that the first hurdle to travelling to the UK may be insurmountable for some low-income countries.
If your home country and the country where your visa is processed are permitting travel, COVID-19 has added quarantine to the mix. So a visa trip that would have taken two or three days pre-COVID-19, now takes several weeks.
Should you get a visa, you then need to travel to the UK. There are only a handful of direct flights from least developed countries to London, and there are no direct flights to Glasgow. You will most likely need to transit through other countries – such as India, Thailand, Morocco, Fiji or the United Arab Emirates.
Before COVID-19, this was inconvenient. With COVID-19, it may be impossible.
Fiji, for example, is not allowing any transiting passengers from any other country.
Meanwhile, the pandemic has reduced the number of flights available, which means some transit hubs can only be reached every week, or every month, rather than every day.
If you make it to a transit hub, you will probably need to wait days for a corresponding UK flight. That will require entering the country through which you are transiting. And to do that, you will most likely need to quarantine.
Should you finally reach the UK, you will find all 46 least developed countries are on red or amber lists. Those arriving from a red list country will need to stump up £1,750 for an 11-night quarantine in a designated hotel that includes meals, transfers and two COVID-19 tests.
Others, coming from an amber-list nation with a flight via London, will still need to quarantine there for five days before continuing on to Scotland.
All told, it has now taken you several thousands of dollars and about 45 days to reach Glasgow. Suddenly, October seems an impossibly short timeframe.
Vaccinations may reduce time spent in quarantine, but every country’s regulations are different. Some Small Island Developing Sates (SIDS) have already said they wouldn’t send delegates to COP26. They can’t risk someone bringing COVID-19 back from the UK to islands currently virus-free.
What can the UK government do?
The UK needs to urgently engage with the practical difficulties of an in-person COP26 and the particular obstacles for LDCs, SIDS and other delegates from climate-vulnerable countries.
With case rates and restrictions constantly changing, the UK host needs to think more imaginatively about scenarios and contingency planning.
The UK could use its extensive network of in-country embassies to reach out to LDCs and SIDS governments to develop plans. They could set up logistics teams and consult with the governments of major transit hubs to agree on viable travel routes and develop alternative scenarios should those prove impossible.
And while COP26 is four months away, in-person ministerial meetings are planned for as early as this month. There’s really no time to lose in addressing these issues.
It is vital that those suffering most from the consequences of climate change have their voices heard, and that starts with ensuring they have as much access to these talks as everyone else.
This blog was originally published in Climate Home News website