Businesses and authorities are executing a range of measures to help get hospitality and travel working again.
Meanwhile, vaccinations are proceeding at a variety of speeds globally. Even in nations with a fast pace of vaccination, there remain concerns about alternative strains of the virus, which could potentially evade vaccines already being deployed.
Israel leads the global vaccination table, measured as doses per 100 residents, ahead of the UK and Chile; Bhutan, the UK, Bahrain, US and Maldives are all at more than 50. But while some countries are opening up, some are casting a worried eye at Chile, where reported infection numbers look to be on the rise, despite the high level of vaccination.
Israel, acknowledged the global leader in vaccinating its population, substantially reopened its economy in early March. Hotels, bars and restaurants were among premises allowed to relaunch, though some restrictions remain in place around crowd size. The country is also making use of its Green Pass system to prove individuals have been vaccinated, restricting entry to some properties.
However, hotel occupancy is still limited, with no international arrivals yet permitted into the country, leaving hoteliers to stimulate demand from the domestic market.
While European governments insist lockdowns, social distancing and masks are all part of the passage towards future freedom, some are pointing to the USA and its apparent dismissal of such measures. There, restrictions are being eased, as a successful mass vaccine rollout runs at full pace – more than 30% of the US population has now been jabbed.
Fully vaccinated individuals can jump on aircraft without testing or quarantine and, in some cases, take international trips. However, the US is still restricting overseas arrivals.
Dr Anthony Fauci, the country’s top infectious diseases expert, who frequently clashed with ex-president Donald Trump, is broadly supportive, arguing that vaccinations will eliminate the likelihood of a Covid resurgence. Daily new cases in the US were around 76,000 at the end of March, compared with over 300,000 at the early January peak. However, there remains tension, with a split along party political lines of those wanting to fully reopen, versus those urging caution and worrying about a potential surge if a new covid-19 variant emerges.
In England, some accommodation is already reopened, albeit with restrictions, and indoor hospitality at large is looking forward to a 17th May relaunch. While the Government has talked of the potential for a health or vaccine passport, no details have been advanced. A number of trial larger events have been sanctioned, to test the safety of protocols.
Elsewhere in Europe, holiday destinations have been listening to hear news of whether tourists from the UK, Germany and Scandinavia will be able to head to the Mediterranean for summer holidays. Guidance has been vague in the UK, where tour operator Jet2 has postponed its summer flight programme to 24th June. CEO Steve Heapy blasted the UK government’s failure to give clear guidance: ““There’s too much uncertainty. It’s not fair on customers, and it’s not fair on staff. People can handle good news and people can handle bad news but the killer, very often, is uncertainty. And there’s just uncertainty everywhere.”
Elsewhere, authorities in Thailand are prioritising tourism in their vaccination programme. Aiming to vaccinate the 460,000 population of the island of Phuket, they expect to open the destination on July 1, with vaccinated visitors able to arrive without restriction. “If we can build immunity for 70-80% of the population on the island, we can receive foreign tourists who have been vaccinated without the need for quarantine,” said Phuket’s vice governor Piyapong Choowong. It has set a target of welcoming 100,000 visitors in the third quarter, and 6.5m by the year end.
In March, the UNWTO called for the international community to support other small island nations with their vaccine programmes, pointing out that many are substantially reliant on tourism to support their economies. Secretary-general Zurab Pololikashvili commented: “By sharing vaccines with Small Island Developing States, the international community can help accelerate the restart of tourism in these leading destinations. Due to the size of the populations of the SIDS, the cost of mass vaccinations will be small, but the benefits will be significant. It will restore confidence in visiting SIDS, allowing the many social and economic benefits of tourism to return.”
HA Perspective [by Chris Bown]: Operating in a confusing world of mixed messages, is a situation nobody likes. And the blast delivered by the frustrated boss of Jet2 probably says it for many – businesses and consumers really need clarity about what to expect, so they can plan.
There’s plenty of suggestions that the worst of the pandemic is over – yet at the same time, those governments that have used lockdowns as a key weapon against Covid are scared to completely remove them. The UK government, famous for taking advice from some extremely hawkish scientists, will probably now be glancing at the numbers from Chile as they repel suggestions they should reopen the economy more quickly.
But Europeans glance longingly at their US counterparts, who seem to be largely back to normal; and hoteliers listen with increasing envy to the news of a relatively normal return of business in countries such as China.
For those of us who’ve had Covid, we can’t wait to get travelling again!
Additional comment [by Andrew Sangster]: Last week, we argued in these pages that the precautionary principle was in danger of stalling the recovery. The UK government in particular needs to snap out of its ambivalence to what should be a great unleashing of pent-up demand.
The biggest worry is the apparent “love of lockdown”. Opinion polls show that lots of people prefer lockdown to real life. In many cases, people are being paid to stay at home, spending more time with their family and whatever leisure pursuits they can do that are permitted under the rules.
But this is not a sustainable situation. And governments need to steel themselves to tell their voters that it cannot continue. Right now, it seems in many cases that the politicians have been hijacked by the most hawkish of the scientists. Enough already.
If we are to be led by the hawks, then there is little prospect of a return to normality. In all likelihood, Covid is to become an endemic infectious disease like the flu and other coronaviruses. Vaccines, not testing or lockdowns, are how we will best keep it under control as we currently do with the flu.
Testing, lockdowns and other so-called non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs) have had their time in the sun. The major vaccines available in the West, even if just the first dose, give 100% effectiveness against death or hospitalisation according to trial results.
Covid is a deadly disease which kills many more people than influenza. The infection fatality ratio is between 0.5% and 1%, according to the most recent studies (such as by Imperial College in London). This would result in UK deaths exceeding 650,000 at the upper end if the virus infected everybody in the country.
But with vaccinations, deaths are eliminated and people who become infected are not hospitalised. There is growing evidence that vaccines not only prevent but can cure many of the symptoms of so-called Long Covid.
Variants are a worry, and will remain a worry, but so far, vaccines have been effective at stopping serious disease even if the ability of vaccines to prevent all infection is less.
There remains risk – as with life in general – but it is a much more manageable risk. We have to, as a society, switch from risk off to risk on.