As we find ourselves in the middle of the second year of the age of COVID-19, the line spoken by Shakespeare’s witches in Macbeth comes to mind, if you’ll pardon the slight liberty taken with it. Shakespeare actually wrote “Double, double” in the play, but given all the travel bubbles announced, then cancelled, then re-announced, bubble, bubble seemed more appropriate. There’s also been Herculean amounts of toil undertaken by the aviation industry to restart international flights, including the work done to develop testing regimes and the infrastructure required to provide those tests. Unfortunately, we’ve also run into trouble with various entities rising up in opposition to countries requiring any kind of so-called “vaccine passport”, although the world had just such a passport years ago for Yellow Fever that was developed by the World Health Organisation (WHO).
Travel bubbles, in which two locales agree to abide by certain rules in order to allow travellers between the two to forego quarantine measures, have been opening and closing in fits and starts since last year. Hong Kong and Singapore announced plans to open one at the end of 2020, but were forced to cancel plans for it when Hong Kong COVID-19 cases started to spike. The two powerhouses of Asian commerce announced in April they would try again starting on 26 May, but it was cancelled in mid-May as cases rose in Singapore. Australia and New Zealand also started, stopped and have now restarted a travel bubble, although it remains in a fragile state of affairs and in early May was almost closed when three people in Perth tested positive for COVID-19. And in late May the bubble between New Zealand and Victoria was paused after another COVID-19 outbreak.
When it comes to working to restart international travel, no one organisation has done more than the International Air Transport Association (IATA), first under the leadership of Alexandre de Juniac and now with Willie Walsh at the helm. The International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) has also worked hard, but as part of the United Nations (UN) it is often hobbled by the politics that afflict that august organ of international statesmanship. The WHO has also pitched in, but again, as part of the UN, it too is held back by politics.
Other organisations have been working hard to restart the flying world, but all these efforts will be for naught if people don’t come up with one set of standards to cover things like testing protocols accepted by all border agents around the world. The lack of a common standard will be the one single thing that will kill the aviation industry. And that’s not just my opinion. “Two key components for an efficient restart of travel need to be urgently progressed. The first is the development of global standards for digital COVID-19 test and/ or vaccination certificates. The second is government agreement to accept certificates digitally,” said IATA’s Walsh recently.
Walsh’s two points are key here. Standards need to be agreed upon — urgently — and in the 21st century any kind of testing or vaccine passport needs to be digital. The problem is many people, organisations and countries are coming out against such digital vaccine or testing passports. And a second problem is that no one single entity like IATA, ICAO, or WHO is leading the way to developing such standards.
Privacy ‘Nervous Nellies’ also cry foul and say personal data will be at risk. But the only data available in things like IATA’s own Travel Pass or similar apps, is a traveller’s name, passport number, the kind of test/vaccine one received, the clinic/doctor’s name, etc. The apps will not have access to a person’s bank account information or a traveller’s Spotify favourites.
The trouble as well is that for all the hue and cry against a testing or vaccine passport, we’ve used them before. When I got my first passport (a long time ago) and started travelling internationally, I had to get vaccinated against Yellow Fever and other nasty bugs and carry the so-called “Carte Jaune” or “Yellow Card” with me whenever I crossed an international border. No one thought twice about it. It was a condition of travel and we can do the same thing now.
But time and tide wait for no man and if the aviation industry is not bold and resolute — now — then international aviation at least, will end up like Macbeth.