ACI Asia-Pacific urges Japan to abolish remaining restrictions on air travel

By Luke Barras-hill |

It is difficult to quickly identify Covid variants of concern (VOC) to be able to introduce travel restrictions that have any meaningful impact, argues an ACI Asia-Pacific commissioned report.

An independent study undertaken by Oxera and Edge Health and modelled on different scenarios of Covid-19 VOC with similar or higher levels of infectiousness than Omicron, suggests that quarantining, testing and other travel curbs are ‘ineffective’ in mitigating against transmission.

The report, released in the context of Japan’s decision to lift border restrictions earlier this month (see below), goes on to say that continuing to impose air travel restrictions would have ‘minimal benefits’ in preventing the spread of any potential VOC and the ‘significant direct and indirect costs to the economy’ would need to be considered.

It suggests air travel restrictions have no impact on the size of the peak and could delay the surge in transmission rate by a few days with a pre-departure test, or ten days (in certain circumstances) with pre-departure and an on-arrival tests.

However, this will only be the case if restrictions are imposed on the same day that the variant is first imported (which is likely to be before the variant is actually identified as a VOC), continues the report.

Stefano Baronci, Director General, ACI Asia-Pacific.

BALANCING COSTS VS BENEFITS

Should restrictions be imposed only one week after the variant is imported, there is at most a benefit of delaying the peak by three days, even if both pre-departure and on-arrival tests are introduced, it adds.

Given the difficulty of predicting the scenario in the long-term – natural immunity could grow or wane or less infectious variants become dominant – ACI Asia-Pacific says the availability of data will play an important role.

Nonetheless, the association outlines several principles: travel restrictions should be removed once seeded cases exceed the level beyond which said restrictions would a make a material difference to the trajectory of infections.

It says travel restrictions should be imposed only where they can have a meaningful impact on the peak and/or timing of cases – or should not be imposed at all.

In addition, the costs of imposing any restrictions should be balanced against the benefits.

Many Asia Pacific countries have relaxed or abolished restrictions on business travel and leisure travel in recent months.

Countries such as Singapore, India, Cambodia, India, Thailand, Australia and Malaysia have withdrawn curbs on international air travel.

According to ACI Asia-Pacific, preliminary statistics from Phnom Penh, Singapore, New Delhi, Bangkok (Suvarnabhumi), Kuala Lumpur and Brisbane Airports show that, in aggregate, passenger traffic has increased substantially between the end of February and May 2022.

Increasing rates of vaccination, covering approximately 70% of the population across Asia Pacific and the Middle East, is a driver.

Stefano Baronci, Director General, ACI Asia-Pacific, said: “Curbs on international travel does little to prevent the spread of Covid-19 but leads to a significant impact on the economy, causing the loss of jobs and businesses. Analysis shows that travel restrictions have, to a large degree, failed to prevent the spread of Covid-19 and have turned out to be a deterrent for the recovery of aviation.

CALL TO RELAX JAPAN TRAVEL PROTOCOLS

The research comes as the association recommends that Japan’s  government completely remove all remaining international air travel restrictions, including full freedom of movement for fully vaccinated passengers and the removal of testing.

Japan, which has imposed tough travel restrictions since the pandemic emerged, reopened its borders on 1 June subject to certain limitations.

Travel to and from Japan is limited to a daily cap, with requirements for pre-departure testing, on-arrival testing, and/or quarantine for passengers arriving from certain countries.

Citing Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, ACI Asia-Pacific says nearly 200 countries have been been divided into three risk categories  – red, yellow and blue – determining whether or not visitors can bypass quarantine requirements and be subject to simplified testing measures.

The association says the limitations on air travel has meant ‘a massive repercussion on the overall recovery of the industry in Asia, Pacific and the Middle East’, which is posing a challenge for the regions as they wait to capitalise on revenue opportunities to aid the recovery.

ACI Asia-Pacific adds that Japan, as a ‘dominant player’ in the aviation sector, can support the recovery of air travel and its tourism sectors across the regions.

“The significant efforts made by the Government of Japan and by the airport operators to mitigate the Covid-19 risk has provided a substantially safe environment, especially when vaccination among the population was not sufficiently spread,” added Baronci.

“However, the research is clear that the inevitable delay in identifying new variants means that transmission already occurs by the time travel restrictions are imposed. The experience gained over this period combined with the peculiar nature of the Omicron variant – highly infectious but significantly less aggressive than previous variants – justifies a review of the health protocols proportionate to the diminished level of risk for the local communities.”

“A total relaxation of travel protocols will provide greater impetus to the economy of the country as well of the other countries in the region.”

To read the ACI Asia-Pacific commissioned study, click here

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