Fears of New COVID Variants Lead to Longer Travel Quarantines | Aviation News
Quarantines continue to frustrate travelers and strangle airlines a year after the start of the pandemic, with the threat of highly infectious coronavirus variants, meaning forced isolations generally become longer and stricter rather than subside.
Even as vaccines encourage countries like Israel and the UK to chart reopening paths, authorities around the world are tightening screws to prevent Covid-19 mutations from slipping through quarantine models designed to contain a less aggressive virus. As questions hang over the efficacy of vaccines on mutated strains, this new front in the public health battle is dampening hopes of a rapid rebound in international air transport.
While British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Monday that overseas travel could begin as early as May 17, sparking a surge in flight bookings, England has just put in place its toughest border brakes in the pandemic, imposing 10-day hotel quarantines Irish nationals and residents from dozens of countries.
Meanwhile, in the parts of the world that have been most successful in keeping the virus out, quarantine rules are tightened and policymakers are adopting a more cautious tone about when travel can begin again. Melbourne authorities are sketching out plans for custom-built isolation facilities outside the city. Hong Kong has one of the most extreme policies: a 21-day, soul-tearing lockdown awaits residents from outside China.
The different requirements neutralize the airlines push for a standardized global response to get people back on the plane. The International Air Transport Association’s proposal for test or vaccine certificates to replace quarantines has not gained popularity with governments.
“We cannot seriously talk about recovery while the quarantine requirements are in place,” said Volodymyr Bilotkach, professor of air transport management at the Singapore Institute of Technology. “Countries continue to make their rules, changing them as they go.”
Isolation can take a toll on travelers stuck in hotel rooms, which often have sealed windows and minimal space. Finance worker Chanyoung Kim struggled for three weeks without exercise, fresh air or human interaction in the Hong Kong Sheraton upon returning from a business trip to South Korea. Kim, who also underwent several 14-day quarantines in Seoul, sought treatment from a psychiatrist and told his manager he was unsure how long he could maintain this lifestyle.
“It was getting mentally difficult,” said the 42-year-old. “When you are alone you tend to think a lot and it is not a good experience.”
Governments decided it was a price to pay to prevent strains of rapidly evolving Covid-19 from places such as South Africa, which was linked to a 16-fold increase in cases in neighboring Zambia in one month . Mutations have also been linked to Brazil and the UK
“The problem is that at this point we have very little information about these variants,” said Abrar Chughtai, an epidemiologist who teaches at the University of New South Wales in Sydney. Stricter quarantines might make sense as a precautionary measure, he said.
The UK restrictions are aimed at protecting the country as the government ramps up its vaccination program. Adults arriving from a so-called red list of countries must pay the 1,750 pound ($ 2,450) bill for hotel quarantine and face a 10,000 pound fine or a decade in jail for violating the rules.
Prime Minister Johnson fueled optimism this week when he said the end of the pandemic is in sight for England, unless infection rates rise again. All adults in the UK are expected to be offered a vaccine before the end of July, and data suggests that one dose offers a high level of protection.
There are signs elsewhere, too, that restrictions on travelers could be eased with vaccinations and fewer cases.
Taiwan, which has only seen nine deaths from the virus, could ease border controls next month, while Macau has reopened to non-quarantine travel from mainland China. Thailand plans to end two-week isolations for vaccinated tourists. More than 63 million doses have been administered to Americans.
At the same time, new restrictions are being placed on travelers to block variants of Covid-19.
As of February 22, passengers on flights to Canada must pay for three nights in a government-approved hotel as part of their mandatory 14-day quarantine. The New Zealand government is considering forcing overseas travelers to self-isolate at home even after their mandatory 14-day hotel quarantine ends. From February 1, anyone entering Vietnam must undergo 21 days of quarantine at their own expense.
The UK’s vision for overseas travel in May also needs open destinations.
“European countries still discourage or restrict foreign travelers. It is far from clear when they will fully open their borders to vacationers again.
-Andrea Felsted, Bloomberg Opinion Columnist
Meanwhile, ever-changing rules and approaches are wreaking havoc on networks and flight schedules.
Cathay Pacific Airways Ltd. cut services to Vancouver, San Francisco and other cities starting this week and introduced an arduous work cycle for crew members to bypass Hong Kong’s new quarantine rules. Cathay’s crew can volunteer for a 21-day shift, during which they stay at a corporate hotel whenever they fly to Hong Kong. This is followed by 14 days of quarantine at another hotel, then 14 days off.
“Governments are almost universally focused on containing the spread of the virus across borders,” IATA chief executive Alexandre de Juniac wrote in his blog in early February. “There is little hope of an imminent return to normalcy.”
Rather than being gradually re-established, some quarantines are approaching permanence. The Australian state of Victoria has started looking for “long-term” solutions to separate overseas arrivals from the locals, with arrivals being housed in newly built complexes near airports. The review followed an outbreak of the virulent British strain of a quarantine hotel in Melbourne.
In Hong Kong, Kim has become a despondent isolation veteran.
“No matter how long or how long the quarantine is, it is always a very difficult experience,” he said.