How can international travel resume during the coronavirus pandemic?
Much of the world is starting to open up again, with many countries easing or planning to ease coronavirus travel restrictions. But would-be travellers face a confusing, uncertain and fast-changing situation.
As the coronavirus spread around the world, a lot of countries – but not all – closed their borders to varying extents. Some require all travellers to self-isolate or to be quarantined in special facilities for 14 days after entry. Others allow only their own citizens to enter.
These measures have helped control the spread of the coronavirus. “Travel bans actually do work, as we see with China and New Zealand,” says Julian Tang at the University of Leicester in the UK.
But the economic and social costs are enormous, especially for places that are heavily reliant on tourism. Many countries are now trying ease travel restrictions without triggering a resurgence in infections. They are taking a variety of approaches, even inside the European Union.
Cyprus unilaterally opened up to a small number of specified European countries – not including the UK – from 9 June. This means travellers from these countries will no longer have to self-isolate after entry.
Similarly, France, Germany and a few others will open to most European countries from 15 June, with France asking visitors from some countries to voluntarily self-isolate.
Quarantine upon return
Greece will allow visitors to enter without self-isolating from 15 June provided their flight comes from an airport that isn’t on a list of airports deemed to be high risk by the European Aviation Safety Agency – though the list is intended only as a guide to what disinfection procedures are needed. A few UK airports aren’t on this list.
Spain will begin reopening from 1 July. It plans to trial a system under which tourists will be tested on arrival and will have to remain isolated in their hotels for 6 hours as they await the results.
The problem with unilaterally reopening, however, is that would-be visitors may still face self-isolation or quarantine on their return home. The UK, for instance, belatedly introduced 14 days of self-isolation for travellers, including returning residents, on 8 June. For some, such as those able to work from home, self-isolation on return may not be a major issue, but it will deter many others.
One way to avoid this is to set up travel bubbles – groups of countries with similar levels of coronavirus infections that allow people to travel between them without having to self-isolate or quarantine, though they may have to undergo testing.
Researchers say the idea makes sense. “Our model would support the creation of bubbles from a pure spreading point of view,” says Ellen Kuhl of Stanford University. “Easing travel restrictions between two countries that are equally affected should not produce an added risk.”
On 14 May, Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia allowed free travel to resume between them, creating what may have been the world’s first “travel bubble”, and some other countries are considering similar arrangements.
“Easing restrictions has not resulted in an increase in infections,” says a spokesperson for the Estonian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. On 1 June, the Baltic states effectively dissolved the bubble by reopening their borders to other European countries.
Now only people arriving from a country with an infection rate that exceeds 15 infections per 100,000 inhabitants for the previous two weeks – including the UK, Sweden and Ireland – must remain in quarantine in Estonia for 14 days. This approach means travellers might unexpectedly find themselves quarantined if there is a second wave in their home country while they are away.
More travel bubbles
Australia and New Zealand, meanwhile, are discussing setting up a “Trans-Tasman bubble” that may also include nations such as Fiji. Australia is also in talks with Singapore, which is setting up a limited travel bubble with China based on testing travellers before and after arrival.
On 1 May, China set up a “travel corridor” with South Korea, allowing shortened quarantines for business travellers flying between specific destinations.
In theory, all the countries in the Asia Pacific region that are successfully controlling the coronavirus could form a “mega-bubble”, but there are many obstacles.
One is that several states within Australia have closed their borders to people from other parts of the country, with Queensland saying it may not reopen them until September. It is hard to see how the country could join international bubbles while its internal borders are closed.
Relaxing restrictions is risky. But infected travellers won’t necessarily spark local outbreaks, says Moritz Kraemer of the University of Oxford. This can be prevented by rapid isolation of cases, effective contact tracing and extensive testing, he says.
newscientist.com, 13 June 2020