Picture: GALLO IMAGES
Picture: GALLO IMAGES

Vaccines are a huge help in the Covid fight, paving the way for reopenings in towns, cities and countries around the world. But when it comes to cross-border commerce and travel, we need more than shots to get back to some kind of normal. Nowhere is that more evident than in the EU, where varying standards and restrictions among member countries make travel confusing within the region, never mind between EU destinations and elsewhere.

Here are some real-world examples: UK citizens can go to Portugal for a holiday without having to take a Covid-19 test before travelling, or quarantining when they return, because of both countries’ relatively low infection rates. If they travel to Spain, however, they will need to quarantine when they get back. If they travel to France, British citizens are advised to quarantine for seven days and take a test and, if to the UK from France, are required to quarantine for 10 days and have at least two tests. Similar variations exist between a large number of EU member states, so much so that the EU has made a tool to navigate the different standards.

Does this sound completely random? At some level it is, and it represents a microcosm of the issues that the world is facing when it comes to restarting business and leisure travel. Aside from getting vaccines distributed more equitably, the world needs to work out a better plan on how it is going to get back to normal. Europe, with its close borders and intergovernmental relationships, can pave the way with testing and travel guidelines for its own region that could set a standard for the rest of the world. Here are four suggestions about where to start:

Standardised testing

EU member nations could settle on testing protocols before, during and after travel, based on the world’s growing understanding of how to test effectively. Several countries including Belgium and France continue to insist on the blunt use of “gold standard” polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests only. While such tests are highly accurate, they can be time-consuming and register as positive for weeks after a person is infectious, adding inconvenience and potentially derailing travel for no reason. Antigen tests are preferable. They are faster, easier to give at the point of care and are particularly adept at detecting people when they are infectious, the key point at which they should avoid travel. Beyond the type of tests used, member EU states differ over quarantine periods, mandatory testing intervals, the treatment of vaccinated individuals and the ability to test out of quarantine, adding confusion to a process that should be relatively easy to harmonise. Consistency is likely to improve compliance and lead to better results.     

More sequencing

The EU could contribute more to international genomic-sequencing efforts to provide a better assessment of emerging variants. There is too wide a gap between genomic surveillance even within developed nations. For instance, the UK has submitted a significant amount of data to GISAID, an initiative that shows genetic variation in viruses. It shows a significant rise of a concerning variant first detected in India. That information prompted Germany to block travel from the UK. However, countries such as Portugal and Italy have not reported nearly as much data recently, leaving travellers and policymakers without a reliable way to assess risk even as Germany leaves its borders more open to both nations. More comprehensive and timely sequencing data would ensure that travel guidelines reflect risks and aid in limiting outbreaks.

Better risk assessment

Infection rates are used as a key measure of risk in travelling to a given destination. But vaccination rates are also important. For example, an outbreak of mild Covid-19 in a country where most people are vaccinated is less dangerous because the risks of serious health effects or contagion are lower. To put it another way, do we care how many flu infections a country has? We need a better set of tools than recorded numbers of positive cases to decide which countries are at risk and which are not. The EU has attempted to create a standard “traffic light” gradation of travel risk, but it relies on the limited metrics described above, and a number of member states do not even use it. Europe can help set a standard for the world to follow — such as setting threshold for cases based on growth rates relative to absolute levels.

Establish a health passport

The EU is doing this right now with its proposal for a Digital Green Certificate, a free service that would track test results and vaccination status for EU citizens and be valid in all member states. However, it has more work to do to ensure there are agreed-upon standards for the included information among all member states and to make sure the certificates are resilient to fraud. Over time, the EU and other countries issuing passports will have to contend with some additional headaches. Vaccines are not as effective in immunocompromised patients, which makes both safety regulation and the use of passports by such individuals complicated. There is growing evidence that some vaccines are less effective at preventing transmission. At some point, passports will have to expire depending on future discoveries about the longevity of protection. A QR code that says “I’m vaccinated” is just the start. 

Without set protocols and standards, it will be difficult to go back to the levels of international travel we enjoyed before Covid. Europe can make travel within the continent both easier and more secure and serve as an example for others to follow.

Bloomberg Opinion. More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com/opinion

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