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How data driven policies can help restart global travel

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) has urged governments to make data-driven decisions in managing the risks of COVID-19 when reopening borders to international travel. Strategies without quarantine measures 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 that 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 coordinate the return of the freedom to travel which is so important to people, livelihoods and businesses,” Willie Walsh, IATA’s director general said.

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 are no longer significant in the spread of the disease and do not pose a major risk to the German population.

The European Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (ECDC) 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) stated that “with a 90 percent 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 travelers 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.

Testing for unvaccinated travellers

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 25 February and 5 May 2021, 365,895 tests were conducted on arriving passengers to the UK. These were PCR negative before travel. Only 2.2 percent 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 percent.

Of the 103,473 arrivals from the EU (excluding Ireland), 1.35 percent tested positive. Three countries, Bulgaria, Poland and Romania, accounted for 60 percent 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 percent of those detained because of universal quarantine measures tested negative for the virus.

Data-driven decisions

“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 modeling, 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,” Walsh said.

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.

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