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17 February 2021updated 28 Jul 2021 2:31pm

How Covid-19 could limit travel for years beyond the crisis

Virus mutations mean that border restrictions are here to stay and inequities between nations are likely to emerge.

By Ido Vock

The biggest worry for many countries now vaccinating their populations against Covid-19 is the possibility of new, vaccine-resistant strains of coronavirus emerging as the virus spreads. These fears crystallised this month after a study found that AstraZeneca’s jab was just 22 per cent effective in preventing mild to moderate disease caused by the South African variant. AstraZeneca says it expects an updated version of its vaccine to be ready by the autumn, and most epidemiologists believe that it should be straightforward to edit vaccines to counter new mutations.

But the nightmare scenario of a vaccine-resistant strain remains in policymakers’ minds. Such an event would not quite bring the Covid response back to square one, as governments have a much better understanding of how to prevent the spread of the virus than they did at the start of the outbreak. Awareness of how to treat those whom the disease makes seriously ill has also advanced since the pandemic began. Nonetheless, it would mean many societies remaining in limbo for much longer than hoped.

The solution that virtually all governments have come up with is to impose various types of restrictions at their borders. These range from requiring new arrivals to show a recent negative PCR test, to forcing travellers to quarantine in hotels at their own expense, as the UK has introduced for those arriving from countries deemed high-risk. Some countries have even limited travel within their borders, with certain Australian states requiring arrivals from other states to quarantine on arrival. 

Taken together, the border restrictions imposed around the world amount to possibly the most severe limitations on international travel in modern peacetime history. For people who dream of holidays abroad, as well as those with family living in different countries and those who used to travel for work, the question of how long border restrictions are likely to last is a real concern.

Although there is widespread consensus that such restrictions cannot remain in place indefinitely, not least because of their negative effects on national economies though decreased trade, business opportunities and tourism, policymakers don’t yet have a good idea of how they can be safely lifted. Better genomic sequencing of positive tests taken around the world will help, allowing scientists to more rapidly determine whether worrying variants are spreading and where. But, on the whole, there is no exit plan.

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What does now exist, however, is some idea of what the future of travel may look like in a world where only some countries have achieved full Covid-19 vaccination.

[See also: Pippa Bailey on the return to international travel after Covid]

So-called “vaccine passports”, documents proving the holder has been vaccinated against Covid-19, are likely an inevitability, allowing their holders greater liberties both at home and abroad.

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Travel bubbles between countries with low infection rates or high vaccination take-up are also likely. This month, Israel, Greece and Cyprus agreed to let people holding vaccination certificates travel freely between the three countries. Australia and New Zealand, which have both virtually eliminated domestic transmission of Covid-19, allow quarantine-free travel between both nations (although the agreement is periodically suspended when small outbreaks emerge in either country).

The EU’s common approach to vaccination may mean that intra-European mobility ends up being less restricted than international travel in most other parts of the world. The EU is one of the few areas of the globe where the vaccine roll-out has been agreed on an international level, meaning that European countries are likely to reach full coverage at a roughly similar rate. 

The EU Commission has made keeping intra-European travel as free as possible a central goal of its response. In a communication published in January, the Commission warned that “border closures or blanket travel bans… are not justified”. As the effects of the vaccine begin to be felt, Europeans may find their freedom of movement on the Continent, within the EU at least, is greater than that of citizens of other places. 

Perhaps most worryingly, inequities between countries may emerge, as poorer countries desperate for tourism to resume ease restrictions on visitors from rich countries. Those same rich countries, worried about mutant strains of coronavirus, may not be quick to return the favour.

Ultimately, travel restrictions are likely to remain in some form for years to come, until Covid-19 becomes endemic in the population and a manageable risk, on a par, perhaps, with seasonal flu. The days of being able to move freely across borders are likely gone in many parts of the world for the time being.

[See also: Why we shouldn’t worry about vaccine passports]