Let the sunshine in

Cash strapped airlines and hotel chains yearn for the return of open skies embracing millions of visitors with authenticated immunity passports


The question on everybody’s lips is: can we freely travel once herd immunity is reached? The experts tell us that it is not yet clear whether vaccinated people can still transmit the virus to others. On the subject of a vaccine passport, there are some countries which agree that this could help activate mass travel but countries such as France and Belgium, have also expressed concern that easing travel only for inoculated people would be unfair.

Are we therefore moving forward to liberate travel for the masses yet due to certain policies we continue to limit those who can attain easy access to vaccines? Commission president Ursula von der Leyen, on the subject of facilitating mobility, said the digital green pass “should facilitate Europeans’ lives”. The noble aim is to gradually enable travellers to move safely in the European Union or abroad.

In particular, Spain’s tourism minister said that Spain wishes that other countries positively consider a “green corridor” for vaccinated tourists in case there is no EU agreement on vaccination passports. In the UK, the official spokesman said that they are looking at the issue of vaccine passports. The pressure is mounting on various governments that face redundancies and thousands of furlough workers particularly connected with the aviation and hotel sectors. Despite parking many of their planes, global airlines are struggling to fill seats with enough people to make money.

More airlines will fail and others (like AirMalta) will need state aid to survive. Planes were only 62.9 per cent full on domestic flights around the world, well below levels at which airlines make money, and an abysmal 38.9 per cent for international travel. As an interim measure, Heathrow airport is introducing a levy-styled Airport Cost Recovery Charge, due to be imposed to recoup the cost of operating and maintaining the Covid 19 safety infrastructure.

The reality of losses from tourism suffered by countries such as Cyprus, Malta, Spain and Greece is worrying since these countries had to resort to massive debt to cope with the drop in revenue. Regrettably, only a few governments took the opportunity to improve scenic spots and pull down substandard hotel accommodation.

In Malta, lip service was given to enhance the ambience by enlarging beaches, removing unsightly construction sites and creating green parks for the visitors. Moving on, experts predict that as Malta has lost a golden opportunity to embellish its product during the pandemic and that it may not recover lost business before 2024. This is a heavy price to pay for embracing a “wait and see” policy.

For example, 2020 was the worst year for Greece by way of a decline in arrivals. It posted a drop of 76.5%, welcoming only 7.4 million visitors against a record 31.3 million in 2019. Logic tells us that such flailing industries, cannot wait for the whole world to become COVID-19 immune in order to restart, as the economic losses that these sectors have faced are devastating.

Right now, speculation is all about more approved COVID-19 vaccines, which had a slow rollout in some countries and isn’t yet available worldwide. In the UK, for example, you can only get the vaccine when you’re offered it through your doctor, and you need to confirm your personal details, including address, at your appointment for the shot. Back to the concept of a Green pass, this record of immunization has other benefits to the patient besides foreign travel.

This begs the question - should inoculated persons continue to wear masks and keep their distance? Continuing to wear a face mask is important because of the strong COVID variants that have been identified and especially those from South Africa. These variants are certified to be more infectious. Medical authorities warn us to continue being diligent saying that although an effective vaccine is the first big step towards ending the coronavirus pandemic, our days of wearing face masks aren’t over yet.

The rate of inoculation started slowly in Europe but is now accelerating. Israel can be awarded the champion trophy for jabbing almost 52% of its population. It goes without saying that educating travellers to comply with the latest testing requirements prior to travel is vital to building consumer confidence.

It is understandable that airlines which suffered massive losses will now insist on a coronavirus passport from all passengers to protect their industry. Some countries may also make vaccination a requirement for crossing their borders. And certification may even be useful for access to indoor restaurants, movie theatres, gyms and opera houses.

But critics disagree with the scheme, saying that a vaccine passport is not an “immunity passport”. This is because it is still unclear how long immunity lasts after recovering from the virus or after receiving a vaccine, and it is also unclear if recipients of Covid-19 vaccines can potentially carry and spread the virus without experiencing symptoms themselves. Experts warn us that with a vaccine passport, holders still don’t know, once they are vaccinated, whether they can get into an asymptomatic carrier state and transmit it just as easily as someone who is not vaccinated. This is a dilemma which only time and testing will solve.

Moving on, one meets with the stand taken by IATA (International Air Transport Association) to introduce a travel pass that lets travellers share their vaccination status and COVID-19 test results with airlines and border authorities, via a contactless passport app. A new global health passport that stores travellers’ Covid-19 test results and vaccination information.

In simple terms this involves users taking a selfie which will be matched with biometric passport data. Ideally this mechanism will eventually build confidence in governments that systematic pre-departure Covid-19 testing can work as an alternative for quarantine requirements.

A novel idea in this regard is the launch of a “CommonPass”. According to Cornell Koster of Virgin Atlantic this solution is an important step towards offering a common international standard. The app called CommonPass empowers individuals to demonstrate their COVID status.

In conclusion, cash strapped airlines and hotel chains yearn for the return of open skies embracing millions of visitors with authenticated immunity passports.

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