Covid-19 Delta outbreak: IATA exposes haphazard border management

An airline group says ”wildly inconsistent” Covid-19 travel restrictions and border systems are stalling the recovery of air transport.

The International Air Transport Association is urging governments to implement simplified regimes to manage the risks of Covid as borders reopen to international travel.

“There is far too much complexity in the way borders are reopening. The potential for a global reconnect could be hijacked by bureaucracies favouring stand-alone ‘made-at-home’ solutions over approaches that work across borders,” said the association’s director general Willie Walsh.

New Zealand will hear more about vaccination certificates in this country later today as part of the Government’s drip feed of its long-delayed plans.How they will tie in to an international system to streamline travel will be crucial.

IATA represents 290 airlines and has rolled out a travel pass that is being trialled by many members, including Air Zealand, which wants to use it as part of a no-jab no-fly policy being brought in for international travellers next year.

Walsh urged all governments to consider the following framework for reopening borders:

• Vaccines should be made available to all as quickly as possible
• Vaccinated travellers should not face any barriers to travel
• Testing should enable those without access to vaccines to travel without quarantine
• Antigen tests are the key to cost-effective and convenient testing regimes
• Governments should pay for testing, so it does not become an economic barrier to travel

He said travel restrictions bought governments time to respond in the early days of the pandemic nearly two years ago had developed into a complex and confusing web of rules with very little consistency among them.

”And there is little evidence to support ongoing border restrictions and the economic havoc they create,” he said.

In the last months, several key markets that had previously been closed have taken steps to open to vaccinated travellers. Among markets that were previously closed, Europe was an early mover, followed by Canada, the UK, the US and Singapore.

”Even Australia, which has some of the most draconian restrictions, is taking steps to reopen its borders to vaccinated travellers.”

The association said the pandemic continued to devastate airline finances.

Over the 2020-2022 period total losses could top $US200 billion ($287b).

A recent survey of the top 50 travel markets, accounting for 92 per cent of global traffic, reveals an urgent need for simplification of the various measures governments are using to manage the risks of Covid-19.

The survey finds that very few states are truly open:

Of the 50 states surveyed, 38 have some form of Covid-19 restriction on who can enter.

Only seven had no entry restrictions or quarantine requirements upon arrival. A further five have no additional restriction on who can enter but maintain quarantine measures for some after arrival.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern outlined re-opening intent for early next year (without dates or details) just as the August border failure led to the Delta outbreak in Auckland.The IATA survey shows how challenging reopening plans are as it reveals consistency among38 states which retain entry restrictions:

• Twenty states exempt or foresee exemptions from restrictions in various forms for vaccinated travelers, but
• Only six are confirmed to exempt minors (who are unable to be vaccinated in most markets) when they travel with vaccinated adults. And there is no consistency on the age definition of minors.
• Nine states do not recognize the full WHO list of vaccines
• There are at least five different definitions for the point after inoculation at which vaccines are considered to be effective
• There is no agreement on the duration of the validity period for a traveller to be considered vaccinated
• Only four states (Germany, France, Switzerland, and Austria) recognise immunity resulting from previous Covid-19 infection as equivalent to vaccination
• There is no consistency on what is needed to prove prior infection
• There are complex conditions imposed by the 46 states requiring pre-departure testing
• Twenty-four only accept PCR testing
• Sixteen recognize antigen tests (of which three require PCR in certain circumstances)
• Eighteen states exempt vaccinated travellers from testing
• Twenty states provide exemptions from testing requirements for recovered Covid-19 travelers, but under differing conditions and with equally little consistency on how to prove prior infection
• Thirty-three states exempt minors from testing, but with no consistency on the age and, in some cases, differing rules if the minor is accompanied by a vaccinated adult
• Testing time-window varies broadly, including specifications by test type

Walsh said the different regimes were a mess and were stalling recovery.

”Complete harmonisation is unlikely. But some simple best practices that travellers can comprehend should be achievable,” said Walsh at the association’s annual meeting in Boston.

Covid-19 measures must not be allowed to become permanent, he said.

“Measures must remain in place only for as long as they are needed—and not a day longer. As we do with many safety regulations, defined review periods are needed.”

It is also clear that digital health credentials—documentation of vaccination or testing status—will be needed as borders reopen.

”Experience even at today’s low levels of travel tells us that there will be chaos in airports if we rely on paper processes.”

Walsh said the EU Digital Covid Certificate (EU DCC) was an efficient and reliable standard to record test and vaccination status. If governments are looking for a standard to follow, this is the association’s recommendation.

He also plugged the IATA Travel Pass to manage travel health credentials using e-gates.

”Irrespective of government use, an automated solution is essential for airlines. They will need to manage documentation verification using automated check-ins. If not, airport wait times and congestion will skyrocket as travel volumes increase.”

After extensive testing, the IATA Travel Pass was entering regular operations with some airlines.

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