The International Air Transport Association (IATA) has urged governments to accelerate the 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,” said Willie Walsh, IATA’s Director-General.
“The measures have not worked. Today Omicron is present in all parts of the world. That is why travel, with very few exceptions, does not increase the risk to general populations. The billions spent testing travellers would be far more effective if allocated to vaccine distribution or strengthening healthcare systems,” he added.
A recently published study by Oxera and Edge Health demonstrated the minimal impact of travel restrictions on controlling the spread of Omicron.
The study found that if the United Kingdom’s (UK’s) extra measures concerning Omicron had been in place from the beginning of November (before the identification of the variant), the wave’s peak would have been delayed by just five days with three percent fewer cases.
The absence of testing measures for travelers would have seen the Omicron wave peak seven days earlier with an overall eight percent increase in cases.
“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 recognised this and are 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,” Walsh said.
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 the Omicron variant to limit its international spread demonstrates the ineffectiveness of such measures over time.”
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.
Walsh said: “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 countries to travel to. Indeed, the Migration Policy Institute research has counted more than 100,000 travel measures worldwide that create complexity for passengers, airlines and governments to manage.”
Mutually recognised policies on vaccination will be critical as the world approaches the endemic phase. Barrier-free travel is a potent incentive for immunisation, he noted.
The sustainability of this incentive must not be compromised by vaccine policies that complicate travel or divert vaccine resources. Issues to address include: The calls of WHO and health experts for vaccine equity are not universally prioritised. Only half the states in Africa have been able to vaccinate more than 10 percent of their populations, while many developed countries are reducing vaccination validity and considering second rounds of boosters.
“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,” noted Walsh.
“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,” he stated.