Iata is urging governments to make data-driven decisions to manage the risks of COVID-19 when reopening borders to international travel. The association believes that strategies without quarantine regimes can enable international travel to restart with a low risk of introduction of COVID-19 to the travel destination.
“Data can and should drive policies on restarting global travel which manage COVID-19 risks to protect populations, revive livelihoods and boost economies. We call on the G7 governments meeting later this month to agree on the use of data to safely plan and co-ordinate the return of the freedom to travel which is so important to people, livelihoods and businesses,” said Willie Walsh, Iata dg, at a joint media briefing hosted by Iata, with presentations from Airbus and Boeing data analysts.
Some points made were:
- Vaccinated travellers
Evidence continues to show that vaccination protects travellers from serious illness and death, and carries a low risk of introducing the virus into destination countries. The Robert Koch Institute (RKI) concluded that vaccinated travellers were no longer significant in the spread of the disease and did not pose a major risk to the German population.
The European Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (ECDC) has issued interim guidance on the benefits of full vaccination stating that “the likelihood of an infected vaccinated person transmitting the disease is currently assessed to be very low to low”.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (US CDC) says: “…with a 90% effective vaccine, pre-travel testing, post-travel testing, and 7-day self-quarantine provide minimal additional benefit.”
The Canadian Testing and Screening Expert Advisory Panel recommends that vaccinated travellers do not need to be quarantined.
A Public Health England study has concluded that two doses of the COVID-19 vaccines are highly effective against COVID-19 variants of concern.
- Unvaccinated traveller testing
A challenge is the potential of barriers to travel for unvaccinated people which would create an unacceptable exclusion. Data from the UK NHS regarding international travellers arriving in the UK (with no reference to vaccination status) shows that the vast majority of travellers pose no risk for the introduction of COVID-19 cases after arrival.
Between February 25 and May 5, 2021, 365 895 tests were conducted on arriving passengers to the UK. These were PCR negative before travel. Only 2,2% tested positive for COVID-19 infection during universal quarantine measures after their arrival. Of these, over half were from ‘red list’ countries, which were considered very high risk. Removing them from the statistics would result in test positivity of 1,46%.
Of the 103 473 arrivals from the EU (excluding Ireland), 1,35% tested positive. Three countries, Bulgaria, Poland and Romania, accounted for 60% of the positive cases.
“Many governments continue to require universal quarantine – either hotel-managed or self-managed. This impedes the freedom of movement, discourages international travel and destroys employment in the travel and tourism sector. Data from the UK tells us that we can and must do better. Almost 98% of those detained because of universal quarantine measures tested negative for the virus. We now have more than a year of global data that can help governments make more targeted decisions on international travel. This can keep the risk of importing COVID-19 cases low – including variants of concern – while restarting international travel with minimal infringement on the ability to live normal work and social lives. Importantly, lives that include travel,” said Willie.
Aviation, including manufacturers, effectively manages and mitigates risk every day to keep air travel safe. Using these skills, Airbus and Boeing have developed data-driven risk-management models to understand the impact of various options. To see the models presented by Airbus on ‘Whole Journey’ risk (Airbus), and Efficacy of Testing Strategies (Boeing) read here.
“There is no one-size-fits-all solution to manage the various levels of risk. The economic and social cost of the blanket measures taken by most governments to date has been unnecessarily high. With this modelling, we are demonstrating that we can be smart with calibrated travel policies that address the risks, enable travel, and protect people. Everybody can respect a data-driven decision. That is the way back to normality,” said Willie.
“No single government action can drive a recovery for international travel. The G20 Tourism Ministers endorsed a data-driven approach to reopening borders. The aviation industry is encouraging the G7 to take leadership by agreeing to work together to use the enormous amounts of data collected since the start of COVID-19 to drive a recovery effort. Critically, that must restore the freedom to travel for tested or vaccinated persons while avoiding quarantine measures for the vast majority of travellers,” he said.
Industry risk-management expertise can help the public health sector manage a return toward normality.
“COVID-19 is something that we need to learn to manage, like we do other risks to health. We accept many things in society that we know come with risks – from consuming alcoholic beverages to how we drive. We don’t ban these activities. We have some common-sense rules and the information needed to make sensible decisions about how to manage these risks. The post-pandemic future means doing the same for COVID-19 so we can all get on with our lives. There is no completely risk-free protocol. Vaccination will play a big role. And the data we have tells us that screening and testing protocols can make travel safely accessible for all,” said Willie.
Speaking at the presentation, Professor David Heymann of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine said: “Government policies are naturally risk averse. By contrast, the private sector has great experience in managing risks every day to deliver its products and services. COVID-19 now appears to be becoming endemic. This means that COVID-19 is not likely to disappear any time soon, so governments and industry must work together to rebuild global connectivity while managing the associated risks.
“The first step is for governments to evaluate the threshold of risk of virus introduction that they can effectively manage. Then they need to identify with industry feasible strategies to enable an increase in international travel without exceeding those thresholds. Airbus, Boeing and Iata have demonstrated some possible solutions. Now we need more intense and transparent dialogue between governments and the airline industry to move from models to policy and ultimately facilitate international travel,” he said.