As Europe braces for the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, governments are struggling to find the right balance between reinstating lockdowns or lockdown-like measures while keeping economies, societies and borders open. One of the policies most prominently put forward to avoid (if not roll-back) restrictions on the free movement of people within Europe is to ensure that travelers are “safe” to enter the country. Multiple means exist to do so, including through systematic testing at arrival. Yet it is increasingly becoming apparent that a shift in mindset is necessary to tackle the issue of travelers potentially carrying the virus across borders.
In a speech to airline leaders on October 19, UK Secretary of State for Transport, Grant Shapps, pointed out that the country did not test at borders because “it wouldn’t capture sufficient information on those who are asymptomatically carrying the virus (…) Accepting a Day 0 test on arrival could allow a very significant number of people to wrongly believe they were not bringing COVID-19 back with them.” That the alternative should be mandatory quarantines is very questionable. But this outlined approach de facto rules-out testing at arrival as a general tool to restore connectivity between the UK and the rest of the world. Following a similar logic, prospects for potential future “quarantine free” air corridors could include some kind of testing requirement prior to departure, as is being envisaged for a future London-New York air corridor.
Why then could this be relevant for ongoing discussions about restoring free movement within Europe, and safely reopening its external borders?
Simply put, the current mindset of looking at public health measures for travel as entry requirements is flawed. EU Member States should on the contrary put in place a harmonized framework and protocol for public health checks to take place prior to departure.
Many EU countries have already adopted such an approach, including for non-essential travelers from non-EU high risk areas (for instance for flights between the U.S. and France where negative COVID-19 test results have to be provided before boarding). Yet collectively, the inability to agree on EU wide pre-travel requirements, which could ultimately set the building blocks for a “European travel bubble”, persists. While Member States agreed on October 13 on a common framework with regards measures for travelers coming from designated higher risk areas within Europe, the consensus found was for travelers to be required to “undergo quarantine or undergo a test for COVID-19 infection at arrival”. That travelers still be given the option to undergo a test prior to departure is too small a step in the right direction. The principle remains that the requirement applies at arrival.
Making the distinction between requirements at departure (exit) and requirements at arrival (entry) is crucial for any border related measure. As such, looking at public health measures, such as testing, solely as a pre-entry requirement to be met and checked at the border is counterproductive:
- testing at arrival does not provide sufficient public health reassurances to be used as a primary means to mitigate the spread of the virus, hence quarantine measures – but testing at arrival could be used as a secondary screening method under specific and pre-determined circumstances;
- it makes little sense to ask individuals to make travel plans if only to have to wait until arriving at destination to discover that they have to quarantine due to a positive COVID-19 test result – this would be similar to being denied entry, which creates additional layers of complication for both operators and public authorities;
- having to deal with public health requirements at arrival limits operators’ options and tools for facilitating a safe passenger journey – pre-departure conditions as part of air corridors or travel bubbles agreed in consultation with industry can provide a robust framework for public health checks.
Hong Kong and Singapore recently announced a preliminary agreement on an “air travel bubble” which would see travelers provide mutually recognized negative COVID-19 test results before boarding dedicated flights. Such an experiment should be closely monitored. And that Hong Kong is reportedly in discussions with European countries to establish similar air travel bubbles is encouraging.
While COVID-19’s dramatic second wave in Europe is confirming that a vaccine will be the only long-term solution that will fully restore confidence in free movement, waiting for that vaccine is unfortunately no longer an option for the aviation sector and those whose livelihoods depend on mobility. Given new capabilities in (rapid) testing technology and public health protocols for travel, authorities should embrace a new mindset where checks are performed ahead of the journey, instead of after, hence providing the conditions to safely and effectively reopen their borders.
By Guillaume Xavier-Bender, Associate Director, Europe, LAM LHA