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Since the onset of the pandemic, we have patiently waited for a “miracle cure” that will bring back normalcy and freedom to our lives. The COVID-19 vaccines are now here and we can finally see the light at the end of the tunnel. Vaccines aren’t a quick fix to the pandemic but it certainly gives us the best fighting chance we’ve had so far by significantly reducing the risk of severe illness.

As of 2 June 2021, 5.5% of the world’s population have been fully vaccinated and this number will only grow as vaccination efforts pick up. For travellers, we are now a lot closer to boarding a flight and going on that much-awaited trip. Travel may be ridden with stops and starts but it is on the verge of recovery with travel bubbles and vaccines.

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The recovery of travel doesn’t completely depend on COVID-19 jabs but also on risk mitigation efforts in countries. Together with vaccines, travel bubbles are aimed at carefully restarting travel and reopening borders safely.

Creating an air travel experience that is as close as possible to pre-COVID is important for passenger confidence and the recovery of travel demand. Travel bubbles do just that by minimising cost and inconvenience for travellers, while ensuring that incoming travellers do not negatively impact the COVID-19 situation in the destination country. 

What is a travel bubble and what does it take for countries to get started? And how will vaccines impact travel? This article sheds light on the way forward for travel in the context of travel bubbles and vaccines. 

What are travel bubbles and why are they important?

Travel bubbles, also known as travel corridors or travel bridges, is an agreement between two countries to allow air travel after successfully controlling COVID-19 for a length of time and achieving low COVID-19 infection rates. Once a travel bubble is established between two countries, it allows people to travel freely and quarantine-free between the two countries. 

Travel bubbles are for all short-term visits including tourism and leisure. For business travellers, travel bubbles will enable them to move easily between the countries without the expense and inconvenience of self-isolating in both countries. It will also mean that business travellers will be able to travel at shorter notice.

Overall, travel bubbles are bilateral votes of confidence in each countries’ public health measures. The idea is to bring back travel as it was pre-pandemic with no need for self-isolation upon arrival. In order to do this safely, countries should achieve similar low risk profiles and have good health controls in place. 

The purpose of travel bubbles is to facilitate the reopening of as many bilateral travel markets as possible, based on equalization of infection risk between origin and destination countries. It is a flexible solution for restarting air travel with risk mitigation measures that suits the participating countries.

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How are travel bubbles set up?

This information paper by the International Air Transport Association (IATA) provides considerations for countries looking to establish travel bubble arrangements. For a successful travel bubble between two countries, there needs to be public health response and efforts to control infection rates that are effective on both sides. While a standardised method of risk assessment does not exist, below are some key considerations:

  • Current infection rates, relative to population size;
  • Trend in infection rates (decreasing, stable, increasing) compared to a previous time period; 
  • Effectiveness of overall public health response to COVID-19 in each country 

Effective public health response refers to capacity of the entire health system and execution of activities such as testing, quarantine, self isolation or contact tracing as a result of COVID-19. Ideally, all travel bubbles should be reviewed periodically and adjusted to cater to changes in the health environment, testing methods, and any other factors. 

What are some active and upcoming travel bubbles?

As the COVID-19 situation within countries’ borders change from time to time, travel bubble arrangements are expected to go through stops and starts until travel is fully reopened. The first travel bubble opened on 18 April 2021 between Australia and New Zealand. Since the launch, both countries have closely monitored the COVID-19 situation and paused the arrangements when necessary. The travel bubble is mutually important to both countries since 40% of New Zealand’s visitors pre-Covid in 2019 were Australian. Meanwhile, Australia welcomed 1 million visitors in the year ending June 2020.

In Southeast Asia, the Singapore and Hong Kong travel bubble was planned for May 2021. However, both governments agreed to postpone plans in the interest of public health following a recent spike in Covid-19 cases in Singapore. The travel bubble arrangement between the countries will be reviewed on 13 June 2021. More travel bubbles are expected to launch as the Covid-19 situation worldwide shows signs of improving by year end. 

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How will vaccines impact travel?

The many benefits of the Covid-19 vaccines will make travel safer and easier. Evidence shows that fully vaccinated people are less likely to catch or spread COVID-19. If the virus is contracted, a vaccinated person is more likely to avoid severe illness and intensive care. 

In the context of travel, vaccines will reduce cross-border transmission and travel risks. Getting vaccinated before travelling is safer for you and those around you. The aim is to achieve herd immunity through vaccination of a majority population and restore confidence in public health with time. 

As per guidance from the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC), people should not travel until they are fully vaccinated. Travellers should also be mindful of the increased risk of getting or spreading Covid-19 variants from international travel. If you are planning to travel, it is important that you keep an eye on the situation in your destination country.

What are the challenges of vaccination rollout?

The 4 main challenges impacting the speed of vaccination rollout globally are:

  • Production challenges: Producing enough shots to meet global demand is a challenge. There is a crucial need to ramp up production to inoculate the global population. 
  • Transportation and storage: Temperature storage requirements differ across vaccines and must be maintained throughout transportation.
  • National controls: The US, the European Union and UK made advance orders and purchased hundreds of millions of doses of multiple vaccine candidates in 2020. Vaccinations are being administered more rapidly in wealthier Western countries than in the rest of the globe. 
  • Public hesitancy: 30% of Singapore’s population is fully vaccinated (as at 30 May 2021) but many Asian countries are just in the early stages of their programmes. and are being faced by caution and scepticism in many people who are refusing to be vaccinated – much of this is based on misinformation. The roll-out of the vaccination in South Korea has been purposefully slow as the government wanted to see how things went in other countries.                                   

In terms of travel, there are discussions of vaccine passports in many countries such as the recent EU-wide travel certificate. However, there is a clear challenge of standardising data across vaccine passport options and countries so that they can be used globally. 

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Which vaccine is approved for international travel?

Globally, the demand for all vaccines is at an all time high and rightfully so, since authorities worldwide say the best vaccine is the one that you can get first. Vaccination against COVID-19 helps protect you against severe illness and death. As travel resumes, there are concerns that the vaccine you are administered could determine which countries you can visit.

At the time this article was written (3 June 2021), under the European Union plan, visitors that are fully vaccinated with shots approved by its own regulator or World Health Organisation will be accepted. The list of approved WHO vaccines and evaluation process can be found here. Meanwhile, China also recognises Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines in addition to Chinese-made vaccines. 

Since vaccine travel rules for many countries are still developing and subject to changes, check the rules of your destination country at Covid Entry Check ahead of time and keep abreast of updates.

Be prepared to travel smooth and safe

The dream of a COVID-zero world lives on, but vaccination and travel bubbles pave the way for a restart in travel. If you are looking for a solution to upgrade your business travel programme, start a free trial or book time to speak with us. We’ll be happy to show you around. 

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