As the vaccine does its work, the prospect of travel without quarantine rises. But the date of open borders is still not certain, let alone imminent. Qantas has just pushed back the date for taking bookings for foreign travel from July to October.
Who needs travel?
Australians do – or did.
According to official figures, 1,056,000 Australians went abroad in pre-COVID January last year compared with close to zero this January.
Before the border closed, about 10 million Australians a year travelled abroad – about 40 per cent of the population.
And the tourists also came in, bringing dollars with them.
“There were 7570 visitor arrivals during the month of November, down 99.1 per cent relative to the same period of the previous year,” said Tourism Australia.
In effect, international tourism into Australia has ceased. The market has closed.
Tourism Australia’s bald figures tell the story: “In the year ending December 2020, total international arrivals reached 8820 visitors, a decrease of 98.8 per cent relative to previous year.”
In pre-COVID 2019, Chinese visitors spent $12.4 billion in Australia; Kiwis $2.6 billion; Americans $3.9 billion; Britons $3.4 billion; Japanese tourists $2.1 billion; and visitors from Singapore $1.5 billion.
When will travel return?
The best and inevitably uncertain estimate of epidemiologist Professor Adrian Esterman of the University of South Australia was: “My best guess would be the end of this year.”
But it depended on how much coronavirus we were prepared to live with, two University of Melbourne academics believed.
“The vaccine could help achieve eradication, but zero COVID-19 remains a pipe dream in the medium term. It’s dependent on numerous external variables, mostly outside our control, including viral mutation and cooperation between 195 countries,” according to Professors Nathan Grills and Tony Blakely.
“If zero COVID-19 is this endgame, then international travel is years away.”
Rather than elimination, they advocate “safe suppression”, saying: “The implicit aim of our mass vaccination program is widespread immunity where the impact of incursions and outbreaks is minimal and more easily stamped out. A damaging third wave is avoided.”
No hope, then?
Testing is getting more accurate and faster, raising the possibility of testing at airports before departure.
As we found with the vaccine, the direness of the situation prompted many groups to devote a lot of money and brainpower to make development much faster than anyone ever expected.
And there is progress on vaccine passports.
“These will definitely be with us soon,” Adrian Esterman, professor of biostatistics at the University of South Australia, told this paper.
The Vaccination Credential Initiative involving Microsoft, Oracle and several US health groups, is working on a digital passport which they intend to be able to verify that the holder had been inoculated while also protecting the person’s privacy.
The International Air Transport Association which represents the world’s airlines has developed an app containing a person’s vaccination and testing status. It’s called the IATA Travel Pass.
“People are sent vaccination and test certificates digitally and that can be verified. Air New Zealand is currently trialling the IATA Travel Pass between Auckland and Sydney. Other groups are also developing similar passports,” Professor Esterman said.
It is likely that initially pairs of countries would agree to accept visitors from each other if those visitors had the vaccine passport on their phones.
Greece wants to do a deal with Britain, given a fifth of its national income and employment depends on tourism.
How would it work?
Under IATA’s scheme, testing laboratories would be able to send test results to a special app on travellers’ phones. The digital certificate would then be shareable with airlines.
IATA says there is already a paper system of vaccination certificates and its “vaccine passport” simply puts the information in a digital form.
“In normal times there are visa and vaccination requirements in many countries,” it says.
“Due to the COVID-19 pandemic governments have imposed additional restrictions: quarantine measures, testing requirements and eventually vaccination requirements. IATA Travel Pass is a tool for use by governments, travellers, airlines, and test centres/vaccination providers to get verified information to those who need it in a safe and secure manner.”
IATA thinks the great advantage of its scheme is that it is international. The app has the travel requirements of all countries embedded in it.
It is still not clear how effective vaccines are in preventing vaccinated people from infecting others (rather than just getting ill themselves).
There would be a question of for how long the passport should be valid. Forgeries would undermine the whole system.
And there is the potential for controversy. As the Financial Times opined: “It is vital to avoid a two-tier world where the inoculated rich can roam at will but those from poorer countries are locked out.
The World Health Organisation chief has already warned of a ‘catastrophic moral failure’ as poorer nations fall behind in vaccine access.”