The surreal nature of international travel in the Covid era was beamed live around the world last weekend. In the opening minutes of a soccer match in Sao Paolo between Brazil and Argentina, play ground to a halt when public-health officials walked onto the field to remove several Argentine athletes over an apparent breach of a 14-day quarantine (mandatory for travel via the U.K.). The game never resumed.
Eighteen months into the pandemic, travel restrictions are still tripping up regular families and firms, not just footballers. A U.S. ban on most travelers from two dozen European countries, instituted by Donald Trump in March of last year, remains in place despite a change of president and the fact that a higher proportion of people in the European Union and U.K. are fully vaccinated.
Meanwhile, Hong Kong residents returning home from places including the U.S. and France must spend 21 days in hotel quarantine even if they’re 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 recognizing 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 Organization found that there had been no “significant” changes in curbs since Nov. 2020. For every bit of good news — Hong Kong and the United Arab Emirates recently eased travel restrictions — there’s a snap-back, such as the EU’s re-imposition of curbs on American travelers 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 officer recently quit his post after tiring of transatlantic travel restrictions.
The benefits, meanwhile, are hard to spot. Consider the treatment of travelers from France, who are not allowed into the U.S. and who had to be quarantined upon arrival in the U.K. 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 U.S. and U.K. are currently reporting around 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 due to variants like delta.
One alternative to travel bans and ineffectual rules would be to better differentiate between the vaccinated and unvaccinated. As of June, only 17% of all travel destinations worldwide specifically mentioned vaccinated passengers in their travel policy, according to the World Tourism Organization. Research from airline lobby group IATA also finds that two-fifths of EU states aren’t allowing in vaccinated travelers 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 Organization should also harmonize 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 license to spread disease is perhaps justified; denying vaccinated families, students and workers a chance at normality isn’t.
No relaxation of curbs is risk-free. But this has to be balanced against the progress we’ve 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.—Bloomberg