The International Air Transport Association (IATA) urged governments to accelerate relaxation of travel restrictions as COVID-19 continues to evolve from the pandemic to endemic stage. IATA called for:
- Removing all travel barriers (including quarantine and testing) for those fully vaccinated with a WHO-approved vaccine.
- Enabling quarantine-free travel for non-vaccinated travelers with a negative pre-departure antigen test result.
- Removing travel bans, and
- Accelerating the easing of travel restrictions in recognition that travelers pose no greater risk for COVID-19 spread than already exists in the general population.
“With the experience of the Omicron variant, there is mounting scientific evidence and opinion opposing the targeting of travelers with restrictions and country bans to control the spread of COVID-19. The measures have not worked. Today Omicron is present in all parts of the world. That’s why travel, with very few exceptions, does not increase the risk to general populations. The billions spent testing travelers would be far more effective if allocated to vaccine distribution or strengthening health care systems,” said Willie Walsh, IATA’s Director General.
A recently published study by Oxera and Edge Health demonstrated the extremely limited impact of travel restrictions on controlling the spread of Omicron. The study found that:
- If the UK’s extra measures with respect to Omicron had been in place from the beginning of November (prior to the identification of the variant), the peak of the Omicron wave would have been delayed by just five days with 3% fewer cases.
- The absence of any testing measures for travelers would have seen the Omicron wave peak seven days earlier with an overall 8% increase in cases.
- Now that Omicron is highly prevalent in the UK, if all travel testing requirements were removed there would be no impact on Omicron case numbers or hospitalizations in the UK.
“While the study is specific to the UK, it is clear that travel restrictions in any part of the world have had little impact on the spread of COVID-19, including the Omicron variant. The UK, France and Switzerland have recognized this and are among the first to begin removing travel measures. More governments need to follow their lead. Accelerating the removal of travel restrictions will be a major step towards living with the virus,” said Walsh.
With respect to travel bans, last week, the WHO Emergency Committee confirmed their recommendation to “Lift or ease international traffic bans as they do not provide added value and continue to contribute to the economic and social stress experienced by States. The failure of travel restrictions introduced after the detection and reporting of Omicron variant to limit international spread of Omicron demonstrates the ineffectiveness of such measures over time.”
What happens when COVID-19 is confirmed as endemic?
All indications point to COVID-19 becoming an endemic condition—one that humankind now has the tools (including vaccination and therapeutics) to live and travel with, bolstered by growing population immunity.
This aligns with the advice from public health experts to shift the policy focus from an individual’s health status towards policies focusing on population-wide protection. It is important that governments and the travel industry are well-prepared for the transition and ready to remove the burden of measures that disrupt travel.
“The current situation of travel restrictions is a mess. There is one problem—COVID-19. But there seem to be more unique solutions to managing travel and COVID-19 than there are countries to travel to. Indeed research from the Migration Policy Institute has counted more than 100,000 travel measures around the world that create complexity for passengers, airlines and governments to manage. We have two years of experience to guide us on a simplified and coordinated path to normal travel when COVID-19 is endemic. That normality must recognize that travelers, with very few exceptions, will present no greater risk than exists in the general population. And that’s why travelers should not be subject to any greater restrictions than are applied to the general community,” said Walsh.
Mutually recognized policies on vaccination will be critical as we approach the endemic phase. Barrier-free travel is a potent incentive for vaccination. The sustainability of this incentive must not be compromised by vaccine policies that complicate travel or divert vaccine resources from where they can do the most good. Issues to address include:
- Accepted vaccines: There is no universal recognition for all vaccines on the WHO Emergency Use list. This raises a barrier to travel as people have little choice on the range of vaccines available in their country.
- Validity: There is no alignment on the length of vaccine validity. This will become a barrier to travel as eligibility for boosters is controlled by national policies. Unduly short validity periods that effectively require air passengers to get regular booster jabs to travel internationally will consume resources that could support primary vaccination in the developing world and booster doses for the most vulnerable. It is reported that the WHO’s Chief Scientist called for booster doses to be used “to protect the most vulnerable, to protect those at highest risk of severe disease and dying. Those are […] elderly populations, immuno-compromised people with underlying conditions, but also healthcare workers.”
- Distribution priorities: The calls of WHO and health experts for vaccine equity are not universally prioritized. Only half the states in Africa have been able to vaccinate more than 10% of their populations while many developed countries are reducing vaccination validity and considering second rounds of boosters. This creates a barrier to travel and strains testing resources in parts of the world where vaccine distribution is less advanced.
“Urgent consideration is needed for several critical concerns regarding vaccines. While Europe is aligning around a nine-month validity period for primary vaccinations, this is not universal. And booster shot validity has not been addressed. As the first quarter of the year is key to bookings for the peak-northern summer travel season, it is important to provide certainty to potential travelers as early as possible. Governments have declared intentions to support a travel recovery. Addressing questions on vaccination validity is a key element,” said Walsh.
Industry and Governments Finding Solutions Together
In October, the Ministerial Declaration of the ICAO High-level Conference on COVID-19 called for “one vision for aviation recovery.” IATA followed-up by publishing From Restart to Recovery in November. It is a blueprint for reconnecting the world following key principles of simplicity, predictability and practicality.
“The over-reaction of many governments to Omicron proved the blueprint’s key point—the need for simple, predictable and practical means of living with the virus that don’t constantly default to de-connecting the world. We have seen that targeting disproportionate measures at travelers has economic and social costs but very limited public health benefits. We must aim at a future where international travel faces no greater restriction than visiting a shop, attending a public gathering or riding the bus,” said Walsh.