Up to 10,000 Japanese fans will be permitted to attend Olympic venues in Tokyo this summer – but the outlook for travel here in Europe is far less certain. This is mostly due to concern about the impact the Delta – or Indian – variant of coronavirus will have.
So far, the impact has been limited, with relatively few hospitalisations and even fewer deaths. But the picture could drastically change and that is why travellers are, generally, being warned to be cautious about booking overseas holidays this summer.
What is clear is that the Delta variant is surfacing in Europe, albeit accounting for only around a single figure percentage of cases. For example, the proportion accounting for Delta in Belgium is increasing while in Spain, one of Europe’s top tourist destinations, it accounts at present for between 5 and 7 percent of cases. The Delta variant in Germany now accounts for 6 percent of all cases.
However, the outlook is drastically different elsewhere with the variant accounting for 96 per cent of sequenced Covid-19 infections in Portugal, more than 20 per cent in Italy and about 16 per cent in Belgium. The figure is even higher in the UK, accounting for about 98 per cent of all new infections.
The Delta coronavirus variant, which first emerged in India, has mostly appeared in clusters, for example, the French authorities are currently trying to contain an outbreak in the Landes region, near the Spanish border. The good news is that most, if not all the vaccines currently being used, appear to be effective in preventing it from causing serious illness. But the ripple effect on travel is already being felt. Countries such as Germany, Belgium and Ireland, for instance, are staying vigilant, and have introduced stricter entry requirements for travellers from the UK, requiring quarantine and testing. In Portugal, the authoririties ringed off Lisbon for weekend travel following a local surge of Delta-driven cases.
A European commission source told this site, “The variant makes it really difficult to talk about any kind of pause in relaxations or postponing future relaxations or tightening measures.”
Scientists are now looking to the UK, where Covid-19 cases have tripled in the past month, for clues about what may happen next and which measures may need to be taken. While the situation remains very fluid, the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) and the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) have now issued a new version of the Aviation Health Safety Protocol. This offers guidance and “risk-based” recommendations for health-safe air travel, complementing other initiatives, such as the EU Digital COVID Certificates.
An EASA spokesman told Travel Tomorrow, “The Protocol takes into account new evidence and recent developments such as the circulation of variants of concern and the rollout of the Covid-19 vaccination programmes.” He adds, “The Protocol stresses the need to maintain certain measures currently in place, such as the wearing of medical face masks, good hygiene and physical distancing.”
Further comment on the travel implications comes from EU Commissioner for Transport, Adina Vălean, who says that as passengers prepare for summer travel and the tourism industry faces a high influx of traffic, “safe and secure conditions must remain the norm.” She added,”With the new EASA/ECDC guidelines, checking for proof of vaccination and verification of the Digital COVID Certificates by Member States must not result in overcrowded airports. “The health and safety of passengers and crew remains our ultimate priority, and our recommendations are fully in line with the latest scientific evidence and epidemiological information.”
The EU hopes the Protocol, albeit with its non-binding recommendations, will help Member States ensure a harmonised approach across Europe. “This will not only benefit travellers but also help the air transport and tourism sectors to recover safely,” said the EASA spokesman.
EASA Executive Director Patrick Ky commented, “We have reached a significant milestone in the pandemic: a real change in approach that can allow travellers to fly again without worrying excessively that the rules may change at short notice, complicating their journey or making it impossible. The industry – and passengers – have been waiting for this moment for a long time. Thanks to the expert epidemiological input from ECDC we are confident that this protocol offers practical and pragmatic guidelines for health-safe travel.”
In line with current scientific evidence and the European Council recommendation, the Protocol proposes that people who are fully vaccinated against Covid-19 or who recovered from the disease in the last 180 days should not be subject to testing or quarantine, unless they are coming from an area of very high risk or where a “Variant of Concern” is circulating. For travel from such destinations, the requirement for a negative test could be “considered”. This could be either a Rapid Antigen Detection Test (RADT) taken no more than 48 hours before arrival or a PCR test no more than 72 hours before arrival. Also, the use of Passenger Locator Forms to facilitate contact tracing “is still considered very important.”
In addition, physical distancing of at least one metre must be maintained and medical masks must be worn at all stages of the journey. Hand and respiratory hygiene measures also need to be observed. All these measures are recommended for EU air travel, but also for air travel to and from third countries.
The rollout of COVID- vaccination programmes has thankfully allowed for the relaxation of some measures for fully vaccinated travellers. But if measures are relaxed too soon also for non-vaccinated people, then we may see a rapid rise in cases again. This is based on the current scientific evidence as well as ECDC modelling predictions, which take into account the gradual relaxing of non-pharmaceutical measures, circulation of variants of concern, and the rollout of vaccination programmes. In order to effectively control community transmission of the virus, we need to continue the roll-out of vaccinations and exercise caution until a sufficient proportion of the European population has received their vaccine.Andrea Ammon, ECDC Director
Emphasis, says the ECDC, should be placed on ensuring that the new elements of the protocol, such as the checking of proof of vaccination or recovery should not create bottlenecks and queues in airport processes. The protocol recommends that the information should be checked once in each journey, ideally prior to arriving at the airport of departure. This should also be the case for transfer passengers.
The recommendations are non-binding but it is hoped that countries across Europe will adopt its recommendations so as to ensure harmonisation and the safe recovery of the air transport and tourism sector, says the Commission.