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Wed, 1 December 2021

Blanket Travel Bans Will Not Prevent International Spread of COVID19

(01 Dec 2021)  Since the new COVID19 variant of concern (VOC) named Omicron (B.1.1.529) made global headlines late last week, an increasing number of countries have introduced travel restrictions, including temporarily prohibiting the arrival of international travellers.

While the World Health Organization (WHO) has reported that preliminary evidence suggests an increased risk of reinfection with the Omicron variant as compared to other VOCs, current SARS-CoV-2 polymerase chain reaction (PCR) diagnostics continue to be effective in detecting the variant.

With scientific research underway to understand how the variant behaves, the WHO has advised that:

- Countries should continue to apply an evidence-informed and risk-based approach when implementing travel measures in accordance with International Health Regulations (IHR), including the latest Temporary Recommendations issued by the WHO Director-General on 26 October 2021 following the 9th Emergency Committee for COVID-19 and as recommended in the documents WHO policy and technical considerations for implementing a risk-based approach to international travel in the context of COVID-19 issued in July 2021.

Closed shops at Suvarnabhumi Airport (BKK) in August 2020. Picture by Steven Howard of TravelNewsAsia.com Click to enlarge.
Closed shops at Suvarnabhumi Airport (BKK) in August 2020. Picture by Steven Howard of TravelNewsAsia.com

- National authorities in countries of departure, transit and arrival may apply a multi-layered risk mitigation approach to potentially delay and/or reduce the exportation or importation of the new variant. Such measures may include screening of passengers prior to travelling and/or upon arrival, including via the use of SARS-CoV-2 testing or the application of quarantine to international travellers.

The WHO has repeatedly said that blanket travel bans will not prevent the international spread of the virus, and they place a heavy burden on lives and livelihoods. In addition, they can adversely impact global health efforts during a pandemic by disincentivizing countries to report and share epidemiological and sequencing data.

Since the beginning of the SARS-CoV-2 outbreak, WHO has been monitoring the international travel measures implemented by countries and sharing this information with National IHR Focal Points via the Event Information Site (EIS).

As of 28 November 2021, 56 countries were reportedly implementing travel measures aimed at potentially delaying the importation of the new variant.

The WHO has stated that essential international travel - including travel for emergency and humanitarian missions, travel of essential personnel, repatriations and cargo transport of essential supplies - should continue to be prioritized at all times during the COVID19 pandemic.

The WHO has also made it clear that those persons who have not been fully vaccinated or do not have proof of previous SARS-CoV-2 infection and are at increased risk of developing severe disease and dying, including people 60 years of age or older or those with comorbidities that present increased risk of severe COVID19 (e.g. heart disease, cancer and diabetes) should be advised to postpone travel to areas with community transmission.

The WHO's message throughout the pandemic has been consistent and clear. Travellers should remain vigilant for signs and symptoms of COVID19, get vaccinated when it is their turn and adhere to public health and social measures at all times and regardless of vaccination status, including by using masks appropriately, respecting physical distancing, following good respiratory etiquette and avoiding crowded and poorly ventilated spaces.

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