A German man was frustrated that he couldn’t visit his holiday home in a sparsely populated area of southern Sweden without entering a mandatory 14-day quarantine on his return. So he challenged the requirement in a German regional court this week, and won.
Following that Lower Saxony ruling several other German federal states have said that they too will stop forcing returnees to isolate for a fortnight. Germany’s interior minister, Horst Seehofer agrees, although only up to a point: Americans, Russians and other non-European Union nationals should still serve their time in isolation, he said.
What seemed like some rare good news for travelers and desperate airlines was tempered by Britain’s and Spain’s announcements this week that they will now ask arriving passengers to observe a two-week quarantine. Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s about-turn — the U.K hadn’t bothered with the requirement before now — raised the obvious questions about a country with the highest virus death toll in Europe closing the gate after the horse had bolted.
Johnson’s discussions with neighboring France and Ireland to exempt their citizens from quarantine prompted yet more head-scratching about the usefulness of such malleable quarantine policies. The French and Irish exemptions would be political, rather than scientific decisions. Michael O’Leary, the boss of budget airline Ryanair Holdings Plc, called the U.K.’s position “nonsense.” When you look at the hodgepodge of baffling and often contradictory national solutions that are emerging, you can understand the frustration.
Like his peers, O’Leary is desperate to get back in the skies and he’s aware that telling visiting tourists and business travelers that they face lengthy confinement, even in comfortable Airbnb accommodation or a hotel, would be the kiss of death for his industry. Unless things change, a Brit holidaying in Spain might have to isolate on arrival and then again on their return home, meaning they could spend almost a month in isolation. That’s not many people’s idea of a holiday. IATA, the global airline body, warned this week that international travel “cannot restart under such conditions.”
National governments have begun teaming up with countries they consider safe, but those with more serious virus outbreaks might be left out, with no realistic option for their citizens other than a staycation. As beauty contests go, it’s become a pretty ugly one. Instead of a clear and synchronized international approach, the confusing patchwork of policies will be difficult for holidaymakers and travel companies to navigate.
One can’t forget that Covid-19 was only able to spread so swiftly because infected travelers brought it with them on planes and ships. Places such as Hong Kong and New Zealand, which have stamped out the virus, might undo that good work if infected tourists seeded lots of new cases. Some governments may decide that keeping people alive is more important than guaranteeing tourists their two weeks in the sun, whatever the consequences for the travel industry. It’s certainly not for the airlines to decide how and when flying restarts.
Still, as lockdowns are gradually being lifted, the quarantining of international arrivals is starting to look arbitrary. While people can move around more freely within their home countries, if you cross a border, even for a few minutes, you risk having to self-isolate. Yet within national borders there are often big differences in regional infections rates. Some parts of countries are clearly much safer than others.
Quarantine is a particularly sensitive topic in the European Union because free movement is a cherished principle. The bloc is urging countries not to discriminate and for places with similar virus-risk profiles to open up together. Ultimately, however, national governments will decide — another example of the limits of European unity. Some states may be tempted to favor their neighbors or popular holiday locations, as the U.K. appears to want to do with the French. Tourism accounts for about 10% of the EU’s economic output, so there’s a lot at stake.
Simply checking passengers’ temperature on arrival won’t identify asymptomatic virus cases but there are other suggestions on how quarantines can be avoided. “Travel corridors,” or the more evocative “travel bubbles,” offer one solution. Baltic neighbors Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania will form one; Germany, Austria, Switzerland and other central European countries are edging toward another, but hard-hit Italy hasn’t been invited yet. And everyone wants to be friends with faraway virus conquerors such as New Zealand and Australia (they’ll probably bubble up with each other).
Another option is for passengers to take a virus test, either a few days before they travel, as Greece is proposing, or on their arrival, which is Iceland’s preferred approach. But this depends on countries having enough testing kit and on passengers being willing to pay. Travelers arriving at at Vienna airport can already avoid quarantine if they take a test, but it costs 190 euros ($205) to have your nose or throat swabbed. That’s more expensive than some return flights. Once air travel picks up again, having thousands of passengers waiting around airports for their test results may become impractical.
If you want to take a international trip but avoid quarantine in 2020 it looks as though you’ll have to get quite tactical about the destination you pick, be blessed with the right passport and get very familiar with government travel advice.
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(This story has been published from a wire agency without modifications to the text)