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Ryanair boss says UK response to Omicron shaped by ‘idiots’

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The Ryanair boss, Michael O’Leary, has said the UK government’s response to the Omicron Covid variant has been shaped by “panic” and “idiots”, blaming travel restrictions for a million fewer passengers than forecast flying on his airline this month.

The chief executive of Europe’s biggest carrier contrasted the recent policies implemented in the UK demanding PCR tests for all arrivals with EU states where most fully vaccinated people can travel more freely.

Speaking from Dublin to the Guardian on Wednesday, he said: “The panic is largely confined to the UK and Ireland. Across the continent there’s been a much more reasoned approach.”

While Ryanair is offering fares of as little as £5 one way, O’Leary said “price incentives are not going to make any difference” around Christmas, which he said was well-booked, but the airline would fly about 10 million people this month instead of the forecast 11 million, and would cut about 10% of its capacity in January.

He said: “Where it’s really hit us has been the early weeks of December, bookings in and out of Ireland and the UK … The rest of the continent is still travelling for business and for leisure.”

O’Leary said the UK economy was suffering from “piss-poor political leadership”, adding: “What deters booking is the whole uncertainty – this idea that if I travel abroad if the government changes the rules in 24 hours I could be stranded, even if Covid-free and vaccinated … Travel only exists on a degree of confidence.

“People in the UK recognise that the government there are idiots. You wouldn’t rely on [Boris] Johnson or Grant Shapps, or Dominic Raab who can’t add or subtract – would you want your journey dependent on the intervention of those idiots? The answer is no.”

Before the mounting medical concern over Omicron, O’Leary declared: “What’s likely to happen is that we all get to Christmas, everybody calms down, the politicians fuck off for two weeks and everything settles down again. We’ll arrive back in January and realise, as South Africa has been telling us for four weeks, it is not going to flood your hospitals.”

O’Leary said the airline had “no issues” in Europe: “They are all seeing an increase in case numbers but they’re not having the same kind of 24-hour panic. I don’t know if it is Johnson trying to cover his mismanagement of the Downing Street party shambles, who knows.”

A Ryanair tweet that went viral sparked controversy this week. O’Leary said he had not seen it before publication, but added: “I was very proud of it – I went over first thing yesterday [to the social media team] to say well done, let’s do more of them.”

O’Leary offered some support for the prime minister by saying he was in favour of vaccine passports for travel, work and even shopping: “We recognise your right to a choice [to not be vaccinated], but if you want to be some independent-minded idiot, sit at home. Why should people working in hospitals treat you and put themselves at risk?”

Ryanair will delist from the London Stock Exchange on Friday to deter UK shareholders, as it attempts to comply with EU ownership rules. O’Leary said it was “an inevitability post Brexit”, adding: “Brexit has been a monstrous economic disaster delivered to you by those idiots … Even the great Brexiteers, [Simon] Wolfson in Next, Tim Nice-but-Dim Martin [of Wetherspoons] now want visas [for their staff].”

Meanwhile, O’Leary said Ryanair would be engaged in further legal battles this year with online travel agencies. He claimed customers were being overcharged by third-party websites for fares, seat selection and baggage when they would be better protected booking direct: “They can only do it on an unsuspecting public who click on these paid-for ads on Google search, which take them off into online travel agencies.

“If it was an airline doing this egregious overcharging they’d be jumped on by consumer protection agencies. It’s no skin off our nose – we still get the booking, we still get the money. But our passengers are being ripped off.”

O’Leary said the practice had been “part of the issue” with complaints over slow refunds when flights were cancelled during Covid, leaving Ryanair unable to automatically alert on flight changes or refund customers because “the money would end in the belly” of the online agencies. He estimated about 10-15% of passengers were booking through third parties.