Vaccinations, Testing and Technology – What Next?

Our CEO, Sonia Davies, shares her views following the UK Government’s update regarding travel for those who are double vaccinated.

Last week the UK moved into a new phase of its response to the Covid-19 pandemic with many restrictions lifting, be it removal of the limits on people meeting indoors, the reopening of nightclubs, or the legal requirement for mask wearing. It was also the first week where people returning from amber countries who have been fully vaccinated by the NHS were exempt from quarantine. For the outbound travel industry that was a boost for summer departures, but for our domestic / inbound travel industry it was of little benefit. The announcement that fully vaccinated EU and US citizens will be able to travel to England from 2nd August without the need to quarantine is the first real boost for inbound travel and also for business travel.

Governments around the world are continuing to try and chart their course through the pandemic, but what is clear is the importance of vaccination. The science and data show full vaccination reduces likelihood of contracting Covid-19, severity of the illness if contracted and reduces level of onward transmission. Is the science perfect? No – no vaccine ever is, but it is the best option we currently have. There are some people for whom the vaccination is too risky / not appropriate but the best way we can all protect them is to get vaccinated ourselves.

But politics, power and misinformation are getting in the way. Vaccines either approved or manufactured in different places are not being recognised by countries / states. The lack of co-ordination from governments on an agreed list of vaccines when most vaccines have already received approval from the WHO or other regulatory authorities, is simply baffling. It feels like we are in a place of vaccine nationalism not working together to get the world back on its feet. The step taken today by the UK regarding fully vaccinated EU and US citizens starts to bring the UK in-line with how the EU have been re-opening but more needs to be done.

Misinformation on social media platforms about high risks of vaccination is causing hesitancy and reticence in some communities, countries, and age-groups. This is also a massive challenge, and out-reach campaigns by leaders in each of these areas is and can continue to make a difference. Higher levels of vaccination and vaccine equality are vital to restore links between countries again.

We are now seeing countries introduce so called vaccine passports for domestic activities e.g. in the UK for nightclubs, in France and Italy for dining out. This is an approach being used by Governments to try and increase the rate of vaccination and also reduce the likelihood of transmission.

Testing is something that many people are now familiar with – be it lateral flow tests before going to work / school, PCR tests if symptomatic, or the myriad of testing required when crossing borders. The NHS testing services are doing a great job, processing hundreds of thousands of PCR tests in a timely manner, and also providing free lateral flow tests.

However, in the UK the private Covid testing industry is not tightly regulated either in terms of price capping or quality of service. There are many reputable testing companies out there who deliver on time, with good customer service, but equally there are poor examples who can be closed down, then pop up shortly afterwards under a new name. Free market economics hasn’t yet resulted in a sensible price point for testing and indeed pricing for tests in the UK are significantly higher than in many other countries. The double whammy of high prices and unreliable service makes the cost and hassle of testing for travel prohibitive for many. But given the Government's consistent messaging around staying in the UK and not travelling internationally, this outcome isn’t a surprise….

The third item is the importance of the role that technology can play. Proof of testing and vaccination would benefit hugely from robust technology solutions that are recognised across all countries. Digital health passes are being trialled by airlines and are proving successful, but how this interfaces with border forces is still to be tackled. The UK approach appears to be pushing the obligation to the transportation providers (airlines etc) to do this validation and the private sector is well positioned to move quickly and provide a solution.

Digital health passes can simplify the travel document process, but as importantly reduce the risk of fraud. Knowing that your travel documents are being checked robustly would provide both a deterrent to the potential of fraud, but also catch the issue prior to departure. The scientific community moved heaven and earth to come up with a vaccine. We are in the age of technology with AI, Blockchain, EV, etc – surely the best tech minds out there can solve this.

No solution is foolproof, but having the right checks and balances in place means that it will be possible to increase the amount of international travel safely. This we know will be both an economic benefit due to the importance and value of the travel & tourism sector, but also allow families to reunite.

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