The International Air Transport Association (IATA) has called for an end to wildly inconsistent COVID-19 travel restrictions that are stalling the recovery of air transport. It urged governments to implement simplified regimes to manage the risks of COVID-19 as borders re-open to international travel.
“Travel restrictions bought governments time to respond in the early days of the pandemic. Nearly two years later, that rationale no longer exists. COVID-19 is present in all parts of the world. Travel restrictions are a complex and confusing web of rules with very little consistency among them. And there is little evidence to support ongoing border restrictions and the economic havoc they create,” said Willie Walsh, IATA’s Director General.
Testing results for UK arriving passengers demonstrate that travelers are not adding risk to the local population. “Of the three million arrivals between February and August only 42,000 tested positive—or fewer than 250 a day. Meanwhile, the daily case count in the UK is 35,000 and the economy—apart from international travel—is wide open. People should be just as free to travel,” said Walsh.
In the last months, several key markets that had previously been closed have taken steps to open to vaccinated travelers. Among markets that were previously closed, Europe was an early mover, followed by Canada, the UK, the US and Singapore. Even Australia, which has some of the most draconian restrictions, is taking steps to re-open its borders to vaccinated travelers by November.
IATA supports these moves and encourages all governments to consider the following framework for re-opening borders:
- Vaccines should be made available to all as quickly as possible
- Vaccinated travelers should not face any barriers to travel
- Testing should enable those without access to vaccines to travel without quarantine
- Antigen tests are the key to cost-effective and convenient testing regimes, and
- Governments should pay for testing, so it does not become an economic barrier to travel
Simplified Risk Management
A recent survey of the top 50 travel markets, accounting for 92% of global traffic, reveals an urgent need for simplification of the various measures governments are using to manage the risks of COVID-19.
“There is far too much complexity in the way borders are re-opening. The potential for a global re-connect could be hijacked by bureaucracies favoring stand-alone “made-at-home” solutions over approaches that work across borders,” said Walsh.
The survey findings include the following:
Very few states are truly open:
- Of the 50 states surveyed, 38 have some form of COVID-19 restriction on who can enter. Only seven had no entry restrictions or quarantine requirements upon arrival. A further five have no additional restriction on who can enter but maintain quarantine measures for some after arrival.
There is no consistency among the 38 states which retain entry restrictions:
- Twenty states exempt or foresee exemptions from restrictions in various forms for vaccinated travelers, but
- Only six are confirmed to exempt minors (who are unable to be vaccinated in most markets) when they travel with vaccinated adults. And there is no consistency on the age definition of minors.
- Nine states do not recognize the full WHO list of vaccines
- There are at least five different definitions for the point after inoculation at which vaccines are considered to be effective
- There is no agreement on the duration of the validity period for a traveler to be considered vaccinated
- Only four states (Germany, France, Switzerland, and Austria) recognize immunity resulting from previous COVID-19 infection as equivalent to vaccination
- There is no consistency on what is needed to prove prior infection
There are complex conditions imposed by the 46 states requiring pre-departure testing
- Twenty-four only accept PCR testing
- Sixteen recognize antigen tests (of which three require PCR in certain circumstances)
- Eighteen states exempt vaccinated travelers from testing
- Twenty states provide exemptions from testing requirements for recovered COVID-19 travelers, but under differing conditions and with equally little consistency on how to prove prior infection
- Thirty-three states exempt minors from testing, but with no consistency on the age and, in some cases, differing rules if the minor is accompanied by a vaccinated adult
- Testing time-window varies broadly, including specifications by test type
“The situation is a mess. It’s stalling recovery. Complete harmonization is unlikely. But some simple best practices that travelers can comprehend should be achievable,” said Walsh.
Measures Need Sunset Strategies
COVID-19 measures must not be allowed to become permanent. “Measures must remain in place only for as long as they are needed—and not a day longer. As we do with many safety regulations, defined review periods are needed. Otherwise, as we said in the aftermath of 9.11, well-intentioned measures could remain in place long after they are necessary, or have become technologically or scientifically obsolete,” said Walsh.
Safely re-opening borders is on the agenda of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) High Level Conference (HLCC) on COVID-19. “The most important result that the ICAO HLCC could achieve is bringing commitment from states to reduce the evolving complexity. The second most important achievement would be recognition that we must return to normal and the production of harmonized guidance on how to do so, including the sunsetting of measures,” said Walsh.
It is also clear that digital health credentials—documentation of vaccination or testing status—will be needed as borders re-open. Experience even at today’s low levels of travel tells us that there will be chaos in airports if we rely on paper processes.
“Europe has made a good start. The EU Digital COVID Certificate (EU DCC) is an efficient and reliable standard to record test and vaccination status. If governments are looking for a standard to follow, this is our recommendation. And if governments are looking for a ready-made solution to manage travel health credentials using e-gates, IATA Travel Pass is a solution. Irrespective of government use, an automated solution is essential for airlines. They will need to manage documentation verification using automated check-ins. If not, airport wait times and congestion will skyrocket as travel volumes increase. After extensive testing, it’s great to see IATA Travel Pass entering regular operations,” said Walsh.