More vaccines and wider availability of cheap, quick Covid-19 tests appear to be key to getting international travel moving once more.
While domestic markets are already driving a significant recovery in hotel revenues in countries such as China and the USA, plenty of other markets depend to a larger extent on international arrivals. And governments are starting to make encouraging noises about restoring air links.
US medics speaking at an online Covid summit, organised by WTTC and Carnival Corporation, and sponsored by Hilton, saw the vaccine rollout as key to getting travel going once more. They also suggested testing regimes, and a common policy for validating vaccinations, would be key to easing cross-border movement.
“The risk is dropping, and primarily that’s because of vaccines,” said Dr Michael Lin, associate professor of neurobiology, bioengineering, and chemical and systems biology at Stanford University. “In terms of behaviours, if you’re vaccinated….. life becomes more enjoyable.”
Lin said testing was an effective way to protect a specific group, and needed to be considered, set against the cost and logistics of testing. “Travel is a special case. Having a testing requirement for travel makes sense – but not for going to church.”
Lin said he expected masks to continue to be worn, as a worthwhile additional protection against spread of the virus.
Proof of vaccination will be easier to provide for some nations, harder for others. While the UK’s NHS has a national database of those vaccinated, the medical experts pointed to the much more fragmented, private-sector led approach of the US. “If we can prove that we’re vaccinated, that’s great,” said Lin, “but in the US, because we don’t have a universal health care system, it’s exceedingly difficult for people to provide or obtain vaccine information.”
“I do think the vaccine certificate issue is a hard one,” added Clare Rock, associate professor of medicine at John Hopkins University School of Medicine. “The question is, will private third companies be able to validate those cards to certify that such a vaccination has happened.”
Meanwhile, testing also may not be an ultimate solution, she said.
Testing is another potential tool, but the result you get depends on when you test, warned William Morice, chair of the department of laboratory medicine and pathology at Mayo Clinic. The PCR test can give a positive result weeks after an infection event; while the less accurate antigen test can be emulated into an on the spot test that gives a result in minutes.
Lin said he saw things already working in the travel sector: “There are already protocols in place, and I think they’ve done a good job, but nothing is perfect.” He questioned why testing was only being requested prior to flying: “To me it seems to be no loss to do an antigen test on arrival, it would make sense – but it’s not something that’s been implemented in the US.”
But while the medics provide a rational route to easing travel, politicians continue to grapple with policy. Those who have used lockdowns – favoured in Europe – are wary of lifting them too soon, after similar actions in 2020 led to a resurgence of the virus. Meanwhile, other parts of the globe, such as the USA, are much more opened up already.
In France, President Emmanuel Macron spoke at the weekend of opening up international travel in stages, from May. He talked of “building a certificate to facilitate travel” and said he expected France to be welcoming US visitors in the summer. In the UK, government ministers are talking of 17 May as the first possible date for outbound international travel, albeit with little clarity. One UK holiday package company, Jet2, has already cancelled any flights before mid-June, frustrated with the situation.
Adoption of a digital checking solution is increasingly seen as vital. Passport control at London’s Heathrow airport, for example, has been criticised for its laborious, slow processing of incoming passengers, with wait times of up to six hours being reported – with the entire process being paper-based.
The International Air Transport Association has called on the UK government to sign up to a digital system, warning: “When international travel ramps up from 17th May it’s critical that passengers are not left queuing for hours for the manual checking of vaccine and testing certificates.”
Meanwhile, more desperate jurisdictions are pushing hard to encourage visitors. Malta has launched a plan that will pay visitors in June up to EUR100 discount a night, encouraging visitors to a destination with the highest vaccination rate in the EU. Launched by the Malta Tourism Authority, the scheme is also supported by hotels on the island.
And tourism companies are continuing to push hard to get their businesses up and running. Friedrich Joussen, CEO of TUI, appeared on the BBC insisting that with rising vaccination levels, international travel could begin again in June. He said he is expecting business to really pick up from July, with the company pencilling in expectations of 75% of normal capacity for the summer.
HA Perspective [by Chris Bown]: When it comes to Covid and travel, there’s no silver bullet. Instead, short term there are layers of precaution, each of which will reduce risk of spreading the virus. And longer term, as it follows the paths of other pandemics, the virus will die away as more of the population become resistant to it – whether they’ve experienced it, or been effectively inoculated against it.
So short term, what’s the plan? If you’ve had a jab, you need to be in a position to be able to verify that, using a method that is acceptable to those in authority, and can be quickly checked. That’s got to be digital, not paper based. Solutions have been proposed – governments need to get on and decide on a system to use.
Testing appears to be another layer – and an antigen test, conducted and verifiable, appears to be already in use. A simpler, cheaper way to get such tests would be a big help.
Aside from easing lockdowns, governments are also fretting about virus variants, with the worry that each new one may be more virulent, and more resistant to current vaccines. This is a fast-evolving situation, one that involves balancing risks. It’s not a place that politicians feel at all comfortable in.
Meanwhile, travel companies, and destination countries that rely heavily on tourism, are building up the pressure for reopening. Initiatives such as mass vaccination on the Greek islands, or in Phuket, see governments coming up with creative ideas to get travel moving. And every survey seems to suggest massive pent-up demand from consumers.
Additional comment [by Andrew Sangster]: Vaccinations offer governments the opportunity to reopen society, if they seize it. It is much less clear how testing helps in anything other than short-term management of outbreaks.
But even vaccines are being used as a tool of repression by governments rather than as a way of liberating us from the unprecedented series of measures that have been taken to curb the virus.
Vaccine passports may be the only way of opening up international borders but they surely have little place in a domestic setting in a free society. Even internationally, vaccine passports are being used as a political tool. To visit the People’s Republic of China, for example, you need to have a vaccine produced in the PRC. This is hardly how the Yellow Fever certificate is used.
The opportunity presented by vaccines is to declare victory – or, as the UK health secretary Matt Hancock said back in January, to “cry freedom”. Instead of moving towards this goal, most governments seem unwilling to fully unlock their populations.
There is a real problem now with many people in society unable to properly assess the risk of returning to normality. Even before vaccines, the virus presented an incredibly low risk to anybody under the age of 60.
In the UK every adult either over the age of 50 or who is vulnerable has been offered a vaccine. There is no longer a risk of the health service being overwhelmed. But still freedom seems a long way off. Instead, we hear constant talk of variants, despite no variants proving to lead to hospitalisation of the vaccinated.
Governments seem to have allowed the health lobby to demand proof that we are no longer at risk. This cannot be right and is the wrong way round. The health establishment has to show us evidence that it is still not safe. And it has not.
The evidence to continue lockdowns is not there (and there is growing doubt, albeit still a minority opinion, about how much good they did in the first place). It is time for life to return to normal.
The public are making it clear that they want this too. The reopening of hairdressers and beauty business on 12th April in England has seen a record surge in demand. In the seven days since reopening, Barclaycard said that transactions were up 62% when compared to the same week in 2019.
But hospitality continues to struggle as it is unable to fully reopen. The outside-only rule meant takings were down 40% on where they were in 2019 on Barclaycard figures.
The UK economy is particularly exposed if restrictions are kept in place. Data from Goldman Sachs from October last year shows that the share of the consumption basket vulnerable to social distancing is significantly higher than major competitor countries, with the UK at almost 30% while for the likes of Germany, France and the US the proportion is under 20%.
Government decisions to shut down have already caused enormous harm to lives and businesses. These decisions were more understandable a year ago at the outset of the virus given the uncertainty. They look increasingly out of step with reality today.