Vaccine Recognition Turbulence Hits Global air Travel
As the global COVID-19 situation seems to be gradually coming under control, international air travel is reopening slowly, especially in aviation markets which started large-scale vaccination. The pent-up demand for air travel has increased the load factors for flights connecting these regions with the most popular ones being the UK-USA route and those connecting India and North America and some European countries.
The least vaccinated countries are in Africa and Latin America, where flights are still feeling the impact of the pandemic. Several east and southeast Asian nations, Australia and New Zealand are yet to fully reopen international air services. It shows that the movement of people will remain restricted until the spread of the Coronavirus variants settles down.
The pandemic ‘air bubble’ flights, continuing for the past four to five months to and from India, are experiencing heavy load factors. The air bubbles are temporary arrangements between two countries aimed at restarting commercial passenger services when regular international flights are suspended due to COVID-19. They are reciprocal in nature with airlines from both the countries enjoy similar benefits.
RESTRICTIONS ON ACCESS TO GLOBAL AVIATION
While the number of international flights is increasing due to the ban being lifted gradually, the problems regarding recognition of vaccines by several countries persist. For example, the UK opened flights to some countries, including India, but did not recognise the Covishield being administered in India. However, after a strong protest by India, the UK included the vaccine in its list of the recognised jabs last week.
Indian travellers face another difficulty as the country’s first locally produced Covaxin has not yet been recognised by the World Health Organization (WHO) even after more than six months since Bharat Biotech applied for its emergency user listing. Therefore, countries which have reopened international air services will still remain close for Indians who have been administered Covaxin until these nations or the WHO recognises it.
Another issue is to possess a common global air travel pass, or a vaccine passport, which provides the proof of vaccination for millions of passengers and is recognised by countries across the world. While some nations have adopted the International Air Transport Association’s (IATA) Travel Pass, a uniform digital vaccine certificate is still not being used in many major destinations.
Several types of systems and applications are being tested to establish safe and comfortable travel. Such vaccine passports are being examined to make them available to travellers through mobile apps. Therefore, to begin with, nations that have air bubble agreements and already reopened their borders can start by recognising one another’s vaccination proof through such passes or mobile apps. The demand for introducing such a system of digital vaccination certificate is growing in Asian countries and North America.
A major problem exists within the European Union (EU), where free movement has been restricted due to the failure of the member states to harmonise pandemic entry regulations. Consequently, the reopening of borders is causing confusion among travellers and businesses and not delivering the benefits expected from easier travel.
A recent IATA study found significant differences in how EU member states are managing travel with 41% of these countries not allowing vaccinated travellers from non-EU ‘White-List’ nations. For minor things like passenger locator forms, 45% of EU nations accept it online while 33% accept paper and online submissions. But only 11% accept paper forms and a further 11% have no locator forms at all. The IATA has urged the EU nations to harmonise their requirements, including conducting vaccine verification digitally before passengers arrive at airports.
The IATA has also urged these countries to integrate passenger locator forms into a state portal which is currently not the case in 80% of the European countries, the study showed. “The experience over the European summer shows that a standard digital certificate is not enough: the travel processes around COVID-19 must also be harmonised and smoothed out. We urge European states to sort out the current mess and give hard-pressed passengers greater certainty over their travel plans,” said Rafael Schvartzman, regional vice-president, Europe, IATA
Around two dozen countries have wholly or partially lifted restrictions for vaccinated travellers so far. There is growing scientific evidence that vaccination is not only protecting people but also dramatically reducing the risk of virus transmission. Specifically, studies by government agencies in Germany, the USA and the UK have concluded that vaccinated travellers are no longer significant in the spread of the disease and do not pose a major risk to the local population.
A study in Germany has even stated that vaccination reduces the risk of virus transmission to levels below the risk from a false negative rapid antigen test. Similar scientific advice has been given by the European Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, which said that based on the evidence available, “the likelihood of an infected vaccinated person transmitting the disease is currently assessed to be very low to low”. The US Center for Disease Control and Prevention has also made similar conclusions.
The IATA recently conducted a poll among passengers at several international cities which showed that 89% of them supported a global standardised COVID-19 test or vaccination certification. Showing a strong support for a digital solution, the poll also concluded that 84% of the passengers wanted an app to manage their travel health credentials.
The recent decision of the Joe Biden administration to enable vaccinated travellers to enter the USA with a negative test result prior to travel from early November has overturned the travel ban for people from 33 countries, including the UK, Ireland, Schengen countries, Brazil, South Africa, India and China.
Welcoming the USA’s decision, IATA director general Willie Walsh said that it marked “a key shift in managing the risks of Covid from blanket considerations at the national level to assessment of individual risk. The next challenge is finding a system to manage the risks for travellers who do not have access to vaccination. Data points to testing as a solution ... We must get back to a situation where the freedom to travel is available to all”.
With safe opening of borders to international travel being the goal, harmonisation of digital vaccine standards is essential to support a protected and scalable restart of aviation, avoid unnecessary airport queues and ensure a smooth passenger experience. For this, WHO, International Civil Aviation Organization, Airports Council International, IATA and government agencies must develop a global digital vaccine standard. This would make it easier for airlines, border authorities and governments to recognise and verify a traveller’s digital vaccination certificate and reduce risks.
(Amitabha Roychowdhury has extensively covered internal security, defence and civil aviation for the Press Trust of India. The views are personal.)
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