Travel restrictions shown to have ’little or no impact' on the spread of new Omicron variant

2 February, 2022

The extensive travel restrictions that governments across the world have imposed to reduce the spread of COVID-19 have been shown to have had "little or no impact on the spread" of the Omicron variant, according to new independent research. The findings of the European study are behind a new proposal into developing a Europe-wide policy for removing restrictions and a model that could be adopted across the globe.

On 01-Feb-2022, States across Europe adopted a new regime for travel within the European Union as set out by an EU Council Recommendation adopted on 25-Jan-2022. This is based on the health status of travellers, rather than the epidemiological situation of their country or area of origin.

Aviation bodies Airports Council International Europe (ACI Europe) and the International Air Transport Association (IATA) are urging European Governments to lift all travel restrictions for fully vaccinated/recovered individuals holding a valid Covid Certificate - as advised by this new regime for travel.

Research provides insight into developing policy for removing restrictions

Independent research conducted in Finland and Italy has provided insight into developing a Europe-wide policy for removing restrictions. The research, according airport operator association ACI Europe and airline representative IATA, "confirms the validity of the traveller-centric approach" and highlights the "inefficiency of recent travel restrictions" imposed by European countries in mitigating the risks to public health and society posed by COVID-19.

The new analysis produced by Oxera and Edge Health reveals that pre-departure testing requirements are likely to be "ineffective at stopping or even limiting" the spread of the Omicron variant.

Travel restrictions in Italy and Finland made 'no distinguishable difference to transmission of Omicron cases'

The analysis of testing restrictions imposed by Italy and Finland on 16-Dec-2021 and 28-Dec-2021, respectively, on all incoming travellers "made no distinguishable difference" to transmission of Omicron cases in those countries. Conversely, the impact of these restrictions, and in particular the limitations to the free movement of people, resulted in "significant and unnecessary economic hardship," according to the findings - not just for the travel and tourism sectors and their workforce, but for the wider European economy.

A change of policy, but economic and public confidence damage already done

The Oxera and Edge Health report shows that maintaining pre-departure testing requirements for vaccinated/recovered travellers further will have no impact whatsoever on the future spread of the Omicron variant in Italy and Finland.

In fact, it shows that imposing these restrictions earlier - i.e. on the very day the Omicron variant was identified as an issue by the WHO - would still not have stopped its spread nor significantly limited it in Italy and Finland.

Even if no travel restrictions had been in put in place at all, the research shows the peak in cases would only have come three days earlier in both Italy and Finland compared to a scenario where they were introduced on 24-Nov-2021 (when WHO first announced Omicron).

The fact that both countries are now lifting their pre-departure testing requirements is very welcome (Finland has lifted restrictions for all incoming vaccinated/recovered travellers, Italy has done so only for incoming travellers from within the EU/EEA). However, it is arguable that both countries could have lifted them much earlier or altogether avoided imposing them in the first place.

The research indicates that if all restrictions had been lifted on 01-Jan-2022, the maximum impact would be an increase in cases of 0.23% in Italy and 0.07% in Finland.

Lessons must be learned 'to avoid repeated economic damage with no attendant public health benefit'

ACI Europe and IATA say that this research highlights the importance that "lessons must be learned to avoid repeated economic damage with no attendant public health benefit" and that there are "no compelling reasons why vaccinated/recovered travellers should be subjected to a different regime whether they travel within the EU/EEA or come from other countries".

The 'come from other countries' comment supports the view that this should not just be a European policy but a guideline to be supported at a global level. UNWTO secretary general Zurab Pololikashvili said last month that when it comes to stopping the spread of new virus variants, "blanket travel restrictions are simply counterproductive".

Variants circulate well ahead of the time by which they are identified

A key factor here is that variants circulate well ahead of the time by which they are identified, and which is why the World Health Organization (WHO) generally considers that travel restrictions are ineffective measures to manage infections.

"It's the classic case of closing the stable door after the horse has bolted," says Conrad Clifford, IATA's deputy director general. "Keeping testing in place for vaccinated passengers therefore seems completely ineffective from the health point of view, but damages passenger confidence and national economies."

Relaxation of travel restrictions support evolution from pandemic to endemic

IATA is urging governments to accelerate relaxation of travel restrictions as COVID-19 continues to evolve from the pandemic to endemic stage. All indications point to COVID-19 becoming an endemic condition - one that humankind now has the tools (including vaccination and therapeutics) to live and travel with, bolstered by growing population immunity.

IATA has called for removing all travel barriers (including quarantine and testing) for those fully vaccinated with a WHO-approved vaccine, enabling quarantine-free travel for non-vaccinated travellers with a negative pre-departure antigen test result, removing travel bans, and accelerating the easing of travel restrictions in recognition that travellers pose no greater risk for COVID-19 spread than already exists in the general population.