Several months into the coronavirus pandemic, very few travel bubbles have successfully allowed passengers to fly internationally without quarantining. Many international destinations still do not allow Americans to visit for nonessential reasons, or they require Americans to quarantine for 14 days upon arrival.
But in recent months, trial programs for pre-flight coronavirus tests have emerged for Americans traveling abroad — most notably for flights to London via Newark on United and American Airlines routes shared with British Airways. British Airways and American Airlines aim to use the testing data from such programs to aid the British government’s decision-making on covid-19 measures, the Guardian has reported.
And now, emerging from a nationwide lockdown on Dec. 2, England has announced it will shorten its required 14-day quarantine for travelers from high-risk countries to five days if they acquire a negative covid-19 test. (Americans can enter the United Kingdom without a coronavirus test in hand but must quarantine on arrival or face penalties, according to the U.S. Embassy in London.)
The testing programs might signal a travel bubble to come, as officials say they are in talks about a New York-London travel bubble. But doctors say rigorous testing and some degree of quarantine would still be required for opening up work travel between New York and London, especially if a projected rise in coronavirus cases this winter doesn’t ultimately derail the effort.
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“Conversations are ongoing between the Federal government, international partners, and industry stakeholders on these matters,” a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Transportation said of the New York-London travel bubble in an email. “The Department stands ready to support the safe resumption of international flights to and from the U.S.”
A spokesperson for the Department of Homeland security also told The Washington Post that it is “in close collaboration with our interagency and international partners and industry to safely reopen and encourage transatlantic travel while mitigating public health risks.”
Officials in the United Kingdom and United States have been in discussions about a London-New York travel corridor since October, at one point with hopes of an opening in time for Christmas, according to the Wall Street Journal. While quarantine-free travel between the United States and London has not materialized with one month left in the year, shortened quarantines will begin for U.K. arrivals on Dec. 15. Visitors who acquire a negative coronavirus test five days after their arrival will not be required to carry out the two-week quarantine.
“Our new testing strategy will allow us to travel more freely, see loved ones and drive international business,” U.K. Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said of the policy, according to the Associated Press. “By giving people the choice to test on Day 5, we are also supporting the travel industry as it continues to rebuild out of the pandemic.”
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention officials recently said they are working to similarly shorten quarantine time in their guidance. Former Food and Drug Administration commissioner Scott Gottlieb said Monday that a seven- to 10-day quarantine would still “capture the vast majority of infections.”
But doctors similarly say it is unlikely that health officials would be willing to wholly lift all quarantine measures between the covid-impacted air hubs, especially as cases are projected to rise this winter.
“There are mathematical models showing we’re going to see a steady increase in cases from now, and we’re going to peak mid-January, probably,” says Carlos Acuna-Villaorduna, an expert in infectious disease modeling at Boston Medical Center. “Until January we’re probably going to see more and more cases … and being in high-risk areas can compromise testing.”
A responsible travel bubble would rely on multiple PCR tests — not a singular pre-travel test – especially in places with high rates of transmission like the United States and England.
David Freedman, an infectious disease expert at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, calls one-time tests for travel too random to prevent coronavirus spread. “If somebody is infected they’re gradually building up the levels of virus in their body,” Freedman says, so with one test “the timing needs to be perfect to catch the positive.”
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“One test is certainly not going to be enough” between high-risk areas, Acuna-Villaorduna says. “It’s probably going to instead bring a false sense of reassurance.”
Three tests, for instance, are required in a new Delta covid-19 testing program the airline is offering essential travelers on its flights to Italy. One PCR test taken 72 hours before departure, a rapid test before boarding the transatlantic flight, and another rapid test upon arrival allows passengers to bypass quarantine requirements, according to the Guardian.
Delta CEO Ed Bastian also cast doubt on a London-New York travel bubble last week, calling the route “complicated” in an interview with U.K. newspaper the Financial Times.
If predictions by coronavirus modeling experts like Acuna-Villaorduna come true, the United States may run into into similar problems other nations faced in opening travel bubbles: Europe shut down its border-free corridor between the Schengen Area and Britain after cases rose in October. Hope of a travel bubble between Australia and New Zealand also fizzled recently when New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern rebuffed the idea.
Asia’s first quarantine-free corridor for tested passengers between Singapore and Hong Kong was also postponed a few weeks ago because of a spike in cases in Hong Kong. The corridor is now unlikely to launch before 2021.
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