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Five things you need to know about post-vaccine travel

The jab is now being rolled out worldwide. But what does it mean for international travel? Here’s everything we know

Huw Oliver
Written by
Huw Oliver

In several countries around the world, including the UK and USA, vaccines are now being rolled out to the elderly, health workers and those with underlying health conditions. Finally, there appears to be a big, shiny light at the end of this long, dark tunnel we’ve been all staggering through for going on a year now.

So the question is: when can we get out and explore the world again? As more and more of the global population is vaccinated, those who’ve been stuck at home for upwards of a year will no doubt be tempted to travel far and wide – whether that’s to see family and loved ones, or just a big trip we’ve always dreamed of. Many of us have powered through the past 12 months by thinking about future travel plans, and soon it seems we may actually be able to act on them.

But the arrival of such good news – not one, but multiple effective vaccines, already in the hands of governments and healthcare providers worldwide – will likely bring with it a heap of new rules and restrictions which might make international travel just a little more complicated. Here’s everything you need to know.

1. Vaccines could help ease border restrictions by mid-2021

The travel industry is confident the rollout of the vaccines will enable some countries to lift lockdown measures, reopen borders and ease other travel restrictions. Those acting faster – such as the UK, which has promised to vaccinate all over-50s by April – will also see a notable boost in confidence among travellers themselves.

Michael O’Leary, chief executive of low-budget airline Ryanair, last month told the BBC’s Today programme: ‘We think the vaccine will remove the ability of governments to lock people down, it removes the risk of the [UK’s national] health service being overwhelmed, and we think it will create – certainly by the summer of 2021 – a return to families travelling on much-needed holidays, certainly within Europe.’

2. …but face masks and social distancing are here to stay

It will take months and possibly years for the vaccines to be distributed sufficiently to allow for a full return to normality. But beyond the huge logistical task of rolling them out, questions still remain over their effectiveness in preventing transmission. All the major, globally approved vaccines (from Pfizer/BioNTech, Moderna and AstraZeneca/Oxford) have been shown to limit the worst effects of Covid-19, but it’s unclear whether they actually make you immune, rather than simply reducing symptoms.

In other words: vaccinated individuals might still be able to catch and spread the disease. That means everyone – even those who have had the jab – will still have to exercise caution (wear masks, wash their hands, social distance) until either a) researchers show it prevents transmission, or b) enough of the world’s population has been vaccinated to reduce the risk of overwhelming health services anywhere. Some countries may not open their borders at all until the vaccines’ effect on transmission is better understood.

3. Some countries and airlines may require proof of vaccination

It is likely that some countries will allow proof of vaccination as an alternative to testing and quarantine requirements. In some countries – particularly places like Australia, China and South Korea, where authorities have done a good job in curbing local transmission of the virus – it may even become a condition of entry.

Alan Joyce, the boss of Australian airline Qantas, has said his airline would likely require proof of vaccination at some point. He now plans to change the airline’s terms and conditions to only accept passengers who have been vaccinated.

Other airlines, however, have pointed out that Joyce was specifically talking about 12 to 14-hour long-haul flights – not domestic or short-haul flights, which are less likely to require proof of vaccination.

They were backed up by Paul Charles, a travel expert from PC Agency, who said: ‘The IATA [International Air Transport Association] are starting to get behind the idea of passengers having to prove they have been vaccinated. But I don’t think it will work as an idea for short-haul flights. I can see why islands such as Australia may want to do this but it’s harder for connected destinations such as European countries.’

This being said, some countries have already announced they will allow vaccinated arrivals to skip quarantine. From March, travellers to Cyprus who have received the jab will be exempt from testing and self-isolation requirements. And Seychelles is already allowing vaccinated people to enter without having to quarantine.

Lawrence Wong, co-head of Singapore’s virus taskforce, said his country is also considering relaxing travel restrictions for those who have had the vaccine. However, it will only do this once the vaccines have been proved to significantly curb the spread of the virus.

Later this week, leaders from across the EU will also meet to discuss a proposal to allow those who’ve had the vaccine to travel freely within the bloc. It’s unclear whether these plans will now include the UK, which left the EU on January 1.

4. …so those slips of paper the doctor gives you are very important

You should keep every bit of documentation you receive when you go to get your jab. There is no consensus yet on what constitutes proof of vaccination, so you should make sure to keep hold of all relevant paperwork, such as doctor’s appointment notes and medical leaflets.

Most importantly, you will likely be handed a vaccine certificate stating your name, date of vaccination, the specific vaccine administered and the location of your administration centre. Keep it in your wallet.

5. Eventually, you may need to provide a ‘health passport’ at border control

When the vaccines are more widely distributed (and their effect on virus transmission is better understood), it is likely that medical authorities around the world will greenlight a globally recognised certification for one or more specific jabs – as is already the case for the yellow fever vaccine, for example. The World Health Organisation has suggested that an such a certificate could be key to reopening international travel.

Several firms have also begun developing smartphone apps that allow users to record details of their testing and vaccination history: a ‘health passport’ of sorts that airlines or countries could require as a condition of entry.

The Common Trust Network, run by the World Economic Forum and non-profit the Commons Project, has teamed up with various international airlines to create the CommonPass app. It uses testing and vaccination data to generate a health certificate in the form of a QR code that can be scanned at borders.

IBM has also developed its own Digital Health Pass, which allows companies and venues to list conditions for entry such as tests, temperatures and vaccination records. Visitors can then store their data in a mobile wallet to be presented on arrival.

With so many similar but separate initiatives cropping up at once, open-source tech organisation The Linux Foundation and the Covid-19 Credentials Initiative (which represents dozens of firms working in this area) are working on developing a set of universal standards for such apps.

They all face some serious challenges over the coming months – especially over individuals’ data-privacy concerns, and the viability of particular jabs, such as those developed by China and Russia. But still, it seems the rollout of ‘health passports’ could well be what it takes for the global tourism industry to get back on its feet again.

Here are five more things you should know about vaccine passports.

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