Iata has called for governments to accelerate the relaxation of travel restrictions as COVID-19 continues to evolve from the pandemic to endemic stage.

Iata calls for:

*Removal of all travel barriers (including quarantine and testing) for those fully vaccinated with a WHO-approved vaccine.

*Quarantine-free travel for unvaccinated travellers with a negative pre-departure antigen test result.

*Removal of travel bans, and

*The easing of travel restrictions to be accelerated, in recognition of the fact that travellers pose no greater risk for COVID-19 spread than already exists in the general population.

“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 healthcare systems,” said Willie Walsh, Iata Director General.

A recently published study by Oxera and Edge Health demonstrated the extremely limited impact of travel restrictions on controlling the spread of Omicron.

Endemic Covid

Iata says all indications point to COVID-19 becoming an endemic condition – one that humankind now has the tools (including vaccination and therapeutics) to live and travel with, bolstered by growing population immunity.

“The current situation of travel restrictions is a mess. 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,” said Walsh.

Vaccination policies critical

Iata says mutually recognised policies on vaccination will be critical as the world approaches the endemic phase. 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. Issues to address include:

  • Accepted vaccines: There is no universal recognition for all vaccines on the WHO Emergency Use list. This raises a barrier to travel, as people have little choice on the range of vaccines available in their country.
  • Validity: There is no alignment on the length of vaccine validity. This will become a barrier to travel as eligibility for boosters is controlled by national policies. Unduly short validity periods that effectively require air passengers to get regular booster jabs to travel internationally will consume resources that could support primary vaccination in the developing world and booster doses for the most vulnerable. It is reported that the WHO’s Chief Scientist called for booster doses to be used “to protect the most vulnerable, to protect those at highest risk of severe disease and dying. Those are […] elderly populations, immuno-compromised people with underlying conditions, but also healthcare workers.”
  • Distribution priorities: The calls of WHO and health experts for vaccine equity are not universally prioritised. Only half of the states in Africa have been able to vaccinate more than 10% of their populations, while many developed countries are reducing vaccination validity and considering second rounds of boosters. This creates a barrier to travel and strains testing resources in parts of the world where vaccine distribution is less advanced.

“Urgent consideration is needed for several critical concerns regarding vaccines. While Europe is aligning around a nine-month validity period for primary vaccinations, this is not universal. And booster shot validity has not been addressed. As the first quarter of the year is key to bookings for the peak northern summer travel season, it is important to provide certainty to potential travellers as early as possible. Governments have declared intentions to support a travel recovery. Addressing questions on vaccination validity is a key element,” said Walsh.

Industry and governments working together

In October, 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. 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 must aim at a future where international travel faces no greater restriction than visiting a shop, attending a public gathering or riding the bus,” said Walsh.

“Whatever the rules are for vaccination requirements, the industry will be able to manage them with digital solutions, the leader of which is the Iata Travel Pass. It’s a matured solution being implemented across a growing number of global networks,” said Walsh.