Travel restrictions around the world on account of Covid-19 seems to have had little impact on the spread of pandemic, including the Omicron variant, reveals a new study.
A recently published study by Oxera and Edge Health demonstrated the extremely limited impact of travel restrictions on controlling the spread of Omicron, although it was specific to the United Kingdom.
The study found that if the UK’s extra measures with respect to Omicron had been in place from the beginning of November last year (prior to the identification of the variant), the peak of the Omicron wave would have been delayed by just five days with 3% fewer cases.
The absence of any testing measures for travellers would have seen the Omicron wave peak seven days earlier with an overall 8% increase in cases.
Now that Omicron is highly prevalent in the UK, if all travel testing requirements were removed there would be no impact on Omicron case numbers or hospitalisations in the UK, the study says.
According to IATA, the UK, France and Switzerland have recognised this and are among 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,” noted Willie Walsh, IATA’s director-general.
Highlighting the study findings the International Air Transport Association, the group that represents 290 airlines globally, called on governments around the world to remove all travel barriers for fully vaccinated travellers, calling current travel restrictions "a mess."
It urged governments to accelerate relaxation of travel restrictions "as Covid-19 continues to evolve from the pandemic to endemic stage."
“With the experience of the Omicron variant, there is mounting scientific evidence and opinion opposing the targeting of travellers with restrictions and country bans to control the spread of Covid-19. The measures have not worked. Today Omicron is present in all parts of the world.
“That’s 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 health care systems,” Walsh noted.
With respect to travel bans, 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 Omicron variant to limit international spread of Omicron demonstrates the ineffectiveness of such measures over time.”
All indications point to Covid-19 becoming an endemic – one that humankind now has the tools (including vaccination and therapeutics) to live and travel with, bolstered by growing population immunity.
This aligns with the advice from public health experts to shift the policy focus from an individual’s health status towards policies focusing on population-wide protection.
Therefore, it is important that governments and the travel industry are well-prepared for the transition and ready to remove the burden of measures that disrupt travel.
“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 there are countries to travel to. Indeed research from the Migration Policy Institute has counted more than 100,000 travel measures around the world that create complexity for passengers, airlines and governments to manage.
“We have two years of experience to guide us on a simplified and co-ordinated path to normal travel when Covid-19 is endemic. That normality must recognise that travellers, with very few exceptions, will present no greater risk than exists in the general population. And that’s why travellers should not be subject to any greater restrictions than are applied to the general community,” said Walsh.
Mutually recognised policies on vaccination will be critical as the world approaches the endemic phase, industry experts say. Barrier-free travel is a potent incentive for vaccination.
The sustainability of this incentive must not be compromised by vaccine policies that complicate travel or divert vaccine resources from where they can do the most good.
In October last year, the Ministerial Declaration of the ICAO High-level Conference on Covid-19 called for “one vision for aviation recovery.”
IATA followed-up by publishing ‘From Restart to Recovery’ in November 2021. It is a blueprint for reconnecting the world following key principles of simplicity, predictability and practicality.
“The over-reaction of many governments to Omicron proved the blueprint’s key point – the need for simple, predictable and practical means of living with the virus that don’t constantly default to de-connecting the world.
“We have seen that targeting disproportionate measures at travellers has economic and social costs but very limited public health benefits. We must aim at a future where international travel faces no greater restriction than visiting a shop, attending a public gathering or riding the bus,” Walsh added.
Pratap John is Business Editor at Gulf Times. Twitter handle: @PratapJohn