Dr Waqar Rashid Dr Waqar Rashid

What Iceland’s volcano chaos teaches us about our Covid mistakes

Thousands of flights were cancelled after the 2010 volcanic eruption in Iceland (Getty images)

Remember the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland? When it erupted in 2010, it caused unprecedented disruption. Millions of people were stranded in various corners of the world. Europe’s airspace was shut down. And airlines were left with an estimated £1.2bn bill. Needless to say this is all small beer by today’s standards of financial loss. But can the response to that eruption teach us anything about the mistakes that have been made in response to the pandemic?

The circumstances might be different but there are many similarities between the reactions to the two events. Ten years on, a big initial scare and a mixture of insufficient information, arguably faulty modelling and over-cautious scientists – consulting with risk-averse politicians, with little or no knowledge of a highly-specialised area – once again make for a bad combination. But here’s the depressing news: back in 2010, the main closure of airspace ran for eight days in April of that year; after six months of Covid restrictions in the UK, we still have no light at the end of the tunnel.

In 1982, a British Airways flight over Indonesia got into trouble while flying through volcanic ash thrown up by Mount Galunggung in Java. All four of its engines shut down, but thankfully the crew were able to restart enough of them to allow for a safe landing. A blanket zero-tolerance approach to volcanic ash concentrations was adopted. This subsequently led to the completely disproportionate reaction in 2010, when the presence of a thin layer of ash (not even visible in many areas) was used to justify the closure of airspace.

From April 15 to 23 of that year, stricken passengers waited for an update. Had the cloud dispersed sufficiently to allow a resumption of flights? For over a week, the answer was no. The levels of ash had not dropped to zero, so it was no-go.

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Dr Waqar Rashid
Written by
Dr Waqar Rashid
Dr Waqar Rashid is a consultant neurologist at St George's University Foundation Hospital NHS Trust, London. This article is a personal view and does not necessarily represent the views of the Trust. He tweets at @DrWaqarRashid1

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