More than 20 countries have wholly or partially lifted travel restrictions for COVID-19 vaccine passport holders ahead of the summer travels. International carriers have applauded the growing number of countries making data and “evidence-driven” decisions to open their borders to vaccinated travellers, urging more countries to fall in line.
Among the countries that now accept vaccinated travellers are: British Virgin Islands, Croatia, Ecuador, Georgia, Greece, Island, Israel, Seychelles, and lately, Germany. Varying local conditions, however, apply.
The vaccine passport – in the form of certificates or digital cards testifying to the low-risk status of their holders – promises to reopen the world and perhaps return lives to normal. But its subtle compulsory vaccination for all air travellers raises fundamental questions of a more divided and discriminatory world.
Specifically, the vaccine passport policy draws the line between those that have taken the jab and those that have not; between vaccinated-rich countries and poor ones like Nigeria that have barely kick-started vaccination, therefore, disenfranchising the unvaccinated and poor countries from international travel and tourism.
Airlines, under the aegis of the International Air Transport Association (IATA), supported unrestricted access to travel for vaccinated travellers.
And where vaccination is not possible, they sought access to quarantine-free travel should be provided through COVID-19 testing strategies based on widely available, free-of-charge tests.
Germany is among the latest countries to make quarantine alleviations for vaccinated travelers. Vaccinated travelers are no longer subject to quarantine measures (except in certain high-risk countries). Germany has also removed quarantine requirements for travellers with a negative COVID-19 test result.
The German government decision followed a review of scientific advice from the world-renowned Robert Koch Institute (RKI), which concluded that vaccinated travelers are no longer significant in the spread of the disease and do not pose a major risk to the German population.
Specifically, it stated that vaccination reduces the risk of COVID-19 transmission to levels below the risk from a false negative rapid antigen test.
The implementation of this policy aligns Germany with recommendations from both the European Commission and the European Parliament, based on similar scientific advice from the European Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (ECDC).
In its interim guidance on the benefits of full vaccination, the ECDC said that “based on the limited evidence available, the likelihood of an infected vaccinated person transmitting the disease is currently assessed to be very low.”
Similar conclusions are being reached on the other side of the Atlantic. In the U.S., the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (U.S. CDC) has noted that “with a 90 per cent effective vaccine, pre-travel testing, post-travel testing, and seven-day self-quarantine provide minimal additional benefit.”
IATA’s Director-General, Willie Walsh, yesterday, said a safe opening of borders to international travel is the goal, and scientific evidence and data such as that presented by RKI, ECDC and U.S. CDC should be the basis for the decision-making needed to achieve that.
“There is increasing scientific evidence that vaccination is not only protecting people, but also dramatically reducing the risk of COVID-19 transmission. This is bringing us closer to a world where vaccination and testing enable the freedom to travel without quarantine.
“Germany and, at least 20, other countries have already taken an important step forward in re-opening their borders to vaccinated travelers. These are the best practice examples for others to quickly follow,” Walsh said.
According to the U.S. CDC, alleviations from COVID-19 restrictions are a powerful motivator for vaccination, particularly in communities where vaccine hesitancy is prevalent.
This is an additional and important benefit of restriction-free travel for those vaccinated. IATA polling indicates that 81 per cent of international travellers are willing to get vaccinated to be able to travel.
Moreover, 74 per cent of people in the same poll agreed that those vaccinated should be able to travel by air without restrictions. The decisions of increasing numbers of countries to accept vaccinated travellers without quarantine measures add pressure for a digital solution to manage vaccine certificates and COVID-19 test results.
Paper-based processes could lead to extremely long processing times at check-in and border control. They also open the door to fraud. Digital vaccine/test certificates, coupled with passenger apps such as the IATA Travel Pass, will be needed to manage travel health credentials efficiently and securely in the restart.
“A gap is opening up between countries responding to scientific evidence, and those exhibiting a lack of preparation or excessive caution in reopening borders. Countries that seize the opportunity offered by the increasing numbers of vaccinated travelers can protect their populations and reap an economic reward,” said Walsh.