Covid travel still an unnecessary disaster
The surreal nature of international travel in the Covid era was beamed live around the world last weekend. In the opening minutes of a World Cup qualifier in São Paulo between Brazil and Argentina, play ground to a halt when public-health officials walked on to the field to remove several Argentina players over an apparent breach of a 14-day quarantine — mandatory for travel via Britain. The match never resumed.
Eighteen months into the pandemic, travel restrictions are still tripping up regular families and firms, not just footballers. A United States ban on most travellers from two dozen European countries, instituted by Donald Trump in March of last year, remains in place despite a change of president and that a higher proportion of people in the European Union and Britain are now fully vaccinated.
Meanwhile, Hong Kong residents returning home from places including the US and France must spend 21 days in hotel quarantine even if they are vaccinated, and the city bars entry to most other people. Australia’s borders are closed, with most international travel banned.
Obviously, caution is warranted around the Delta variant. But the lack of pragmatism around international travel is striking. Although many governments have eased restrictions on movement at home, since recognising the evidence that vaccines protect against severe forms of Covid, travel curbs appear to be preserved in cement.
A July report by the World Tourism Organisation found that there had been no “significant” changes in curbs since November 2020. For every bit of good news — Hong Kong and the United Arab Emirates recently eased travel restrictions — there is a snapback, such as the EU’s reimposition of curbs on American travellers after a summer reprieve.
This merits urgent attention. There are emotional and economic costs to restricting travel. Most visible is the tourism industry, which suffered its worst year on record in 2020 — losses may hit $2.4 trillion this year, according to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development. Less visible are all the lives and careers that have been put on hold until travel resumes, from full-time workers and seasonal staff to international students with big future potential. One chief executive recently quit his post after tiring of transatlantic travel restrictions.
The benefits, meanwhile, are hard to spot. Consider the treatment of travellers from France, who are not allowed into the US and who had to be quarantined upon arrival in Britain until recently, even if they were vaccinated. Today they still have to book a Covid test two days after arrival.
All this to what end? The US and Britain are reporting about 500 new daily cases per million people, about twice that of France. Paris is deemed the most open city out of 40 destinations tracked by Bloomberg. Even New Zealand, with its high border control and location thousands of miles from anywhere, concedes that, even with vaccines, infections will rise when its borders reopen because of variants such as Delta.
One alternative to travel bans and ineffectual rules would be to better differentiate between the vaccinated and unvaccinated. As of June, only 17 per cent of all travel destinations worldwide specifically mentioned vaccinated passengers in their travel policy, according to the World Tourism Organisation. Research from airline lobby group IATA also finds that two fifths of European Union states are not allowing in vaccinated travellers from countries deemed safe outside the bloc.
For all the caveats on transmission and waning vaccine effectiveness, there should be more openness to the vaccinated. Of course, this would mean that rich countries need to push harder to expand supply and production of vaccines in the developing world. Otherwise, those without access will be unfairly punished.
The World Health Organisation should also harmonise competing definitions of “full vaccination” to reduce confusion as countries roll out booster shots and third doses. More broadly, politicians need to start talking about travel as an opportunity, not just a risk. Wanting to avoid giving privileged holidaymakers licence to spread disease is perhaps justified; denying vaccinated families, students and workers a chance at normality is not.
No relaxation of curbs is risk-free. But this has to be balanced against the progress we have made so far in managing Covid — and the reward of improving mobility. At this stage of the pandemic, with the tools at our disposal, a shift looks worth it.
• Lionel Laurent is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering the European Union and France. Sam Fazeli is senior pharmaceuticals analyst for Bloomberg Intelligence and director of research for Europe, the Middle East and Africa