EU travel restrictions had ‘little or no impact’ on spread of Omicron, study shows

EU travel restrictions had ‘little or no impact’ on spread of Omicron, study shows
Credit: Belga

Travel restrictions like pre-departure testing requirements seem to be ineffective at stopping – or even limiting – the spread of the Omicron coronavirus variant, a new recent analysis shows.

Italy and Finland imposed testing restrictions on all incoming travellers on 16 December and 28 December, respectively, but they made no distinguishable difference to the transmission of Omicron cases in those countries, the research produced by Oxera and Edge Health showed.

“The research is clear that the inevitable delay in identifying new variants means that transmission already occurs by the time travel restrictions are imposed,” Conrad Clifford, Deputy Director-General of the International Air Transport Association (IATA) said in a statement.

“It is the classic case of closing the stable door after the horse has bolted. Keeping testing in place for vaccinated passengers, therefore, seems completely ineffective from the health point of view, but damages passenger confidence and national economies,” he said, calling on governments to lift restrictions.

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Additionally, the impact of these restrictions (in particular the limitations to the free movement of people) resulted in “significant and unnecessary economic hardship, not just for the travel and tourism sectors and their workforce, but for the whole European economy.”

The report also shows that keeping pre-departure testing requirements for vaccinated or recovered travellers in place now will have no impact on the future spread of the Omicron variant in Italy and Finland whatsoever.

Moreover, imposing these restrictions earlier – such as on the same day the Omicron variant was identified as an issue by the World Health Organisation (WHO) – would not have stopped its spread nor significantly limited it in Italy and Finland either, according to the report.

This is due to the fact that variants circulate well ahead of the time by which they are identified, which is the reason why both the WHO and the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) often consider travel restrictions to be ineffective.

‘Causing more harm than good’

Last week, the WHO also issued an opinion stating that international travel restrictions have done little to stop the spread of the Omicron variant and should therefore be lifted. They can “discourage transparent and rapid reporting of emerging Variants of Concern (VOC) in a transparent and timely manner” and cause “economic and social unrest.”

Additionally, countries should “consider a risk-based approach to international travel by lifting or modifying measures, such as testing and/or quarantine requirements, when appropriate, in accordance with the WHO guidance.”

As of today (1 February), the new EU regulations based on the health status of travellers rather than the epidemiological situation of their country come into force, but ACI EUROPE Director-General Olivier Jankovec stressed that “having common EU regimes has not prevented Member States from going their own way” in the past two years.

“This must stop. We now have further proof – travel restrictions do have a significant effect – but it’s not on public health, it’s on economic stability and livelihoods,” he said. “In short: they are causing more harm than good.”

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