It is no surprise at all to see airline lobbying organizations try to push the narrative that border closings are a bad idea. After all, border closings are bad for business for their members. But the thing is… these groups are right. Border closings ARE a bad idea, and more importantly, they do not help to stop the spread of COVID. And it’s not just border closings but also lesser travel restrictions that act as a deterrent to those wanting to travel without providing much of a benefit, if any.
Things have moved fast during the pandemic, so data hasn’t always been an option on which to base decisions. With time, that continues to change, and now, there are two new studies focusing in on the waste that is pre-travel COVID testing.
Common sense already suggested that blunt objects like border closings were senseless. With Omicron, for example, the idea that closing the border to people from southern Africa — just because that’s where Omicron was first detected — would stop the spread is laughable.
The silliness of this plan is just too obvious. First, the countries were only preventing people FROM those countries from entering. But citizens of the European countries who were visiting down there could still come back home. Sure they had to quarantine, but you know who else could have quarantined? Citizens of South African countries. But that’s not even the biggest issue.
The biggest issue is that COVID spreads silently before symptoms start showing. There was no way that when they first discovered widespread transmission in southern Africa that they could somehow contain it there. Omicron had already spread all over, and no weak restrictions were going to stop it.
It’s that last point that I imagine is particularly relevant when we talk about pre-departure testing. It’s not only that symptoms don’t show, but tests may not show positive either. But does that mean they shouldn’t be used? Couldn’t they still help? Apparently not.
The International Air Transport Association (IATA) and Airports Council International Europe (ACI Europe) put out a release Tuesday saying that the travel restrictions, specifically pre-departure testing, had “little impact” on the spread of Omicron. They cited two studies, one in Italy and the other in Finland.
The studies come from Oxera and Edge Health, and they are said to be independent. I wouldn’t even know how to follow that up to confirm, so I suppose… take it or leave it. But they did put together a presentation for IATA and ACI Europe highlighting their findings in both countries.
Let’s start with Italy, where they introduced pre-departure testing requirements for people flying from other EU countries into Italy from mid-December. Before that, intra-EU travel was not restricted, and there was significant backlash when they reintroduced these testing rules.
At the time, Omicron had yet to take off in the country, but it didn’t matter. In this study, the teams built a model meant to show COVID infection rates, and they were able to get results that closely mirrored what’s actually happening. Then they were able to tweak inputs to find out what it would have looked like if no testing rule has been put into place. Here’s what the model shows:
The models run with both scenarios look basically the same, meaning the testing program didn’t add value. But they weren’t done there. What if Italy had introduced the testing rule on November 24, the day South Africa announced the variant?
As you can see, it had some kind of impact, but it wasn’t as much as you might expect to see. There would have been a slight delay in the spread, and the peak would be a bit lower. Maybe you would make the decision that this makes it worthwhile, but you also have to remember that November 24 is the day that South Africa reported Omicron to the WHO. That is just not plausible — nor is it practical — to think rules could or should have been put in place every time a variant gets reported.
What about Finland? Well, that was a bit different.
Finland waited until December 28 to introduce pre-departure tests for all arrivals, even within the EU. It was a temporary measure meant to go through January 16, but it was ultimately useless.
The numbers show the same thing as in Italy’s first chart above… there was no real impact to the trajectory of cases by implementing this testing rule. But what about if they had put restrictions in place on November 24? It would have made barely a blip. They say the number of cases at the peak would have been 2 percent higher than what we have today… in the completely impossible event that restrictions were put in place on November 24.
Pre-departure testing seems to have a very minimal positive impact on health. On the negative side, it stifles travel and economic growth. You need a balance between those two, and now with more and more studies, it would seem to make sense to stop with these jerky travel restriction changes and put in a uniform policy that can both provide political cover — because we all know that’s a big piece of this — but also not be an enormous burden on travelers.