Global trends causing U-turn on overseas trips
Serious concerns over resurgence of Covid-19 lead to change in sentiment
Ireland’s epidemic began last February, when travellers, especially those returning from Italy, imported the disease into Ireland. Photograph: Owen Humphreys/PA Wire
Barely a week after Leo Varadkar promised overseas travel would resume on July 9th, that commitment appears to be in major doubt over concerns about a resurgence of Covid-19.
With Ministers in the new Government barely having time to get the feet under their desks, public health officials have been doubling down on their opposition to any relaxation of overseas travel restrictions.
Though our new case figures are relatively stable despite weeks of easing of restrictions domestically, officials say they are “more than nervous” and “gravely concerned” about any corresponding relaxations of curbs on foreign travel. Chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan has called on people with flights booked to cancel their holiday plans, supercharging his appeal with a “green jersey” plea for national solidarity.
So what has happened in the space of a week to bring about the change in sentiment? And are the concerns of public health officials justified by the facts on the ground?
Foreign travel is where our epidemic began last February, when travellers, especially those returning from Italy, imported the disease into Ireland. It took only a few seed cases to start a pandemic that has killed more than 1,700 people; it is a repeat of this nightmare that many scientists fear.
But hasn’t so much changed since then? Aren’t we better prepared?
Yes and no. Yes, we now have a high-capacity testing system, better treatments in hospital and a greater awareness of the need to protect those most at risk.
But there remain doubts about how fast the testing and contact tracing system would respond in the event of another spike in cases. The system would surely be challenged by the high number of contacts likely to result from cases acquired overseas. Think about all those airports and busses in far-flung places a person carrying the virus might travel through, and how difficult it would be to trace all their contacts.
Yet there has not so far been any major rise in cases. There were three new cases on Sunday, and 24 on Monday. There were just four new travel-related cases in the week up to Saturday.
Wider trends across the world are causing officials here to fret. More than one million new cases have been diagnosed in the past week. The head of the World Health Organisation has predicted “the worst is yet to come”. Countries such as Croatia and Portugal, which did well earlier on, have suffered surges as restrictions were eased. New Zealand, which thought it had eliminated the virus, has cases again, imported from other countries
No one should be surprised at a rise in cases where restrictions are being lifted; the question is whether the increase can be controlled. Irish public health officials clearly don’t think we can, which is why, once again, their answer involves shutting things down or placing obstacles to travel that are so high that it amounts to the same thing.
In May, the National Public Health Emergency Team called on Government to introduce mandatory quarantine for 14 days for travellers at a “designated facility”, a proposal that would effectively kill off the travel industry for some time to come.
Ironically, these same officials declined to ask Italian fans, many of them from virus-ridden provinces of the country, not to travel to Dublin in March after the rugby internationals were cancelled.
Australia and New Zealand operate mandatory quarantine, but, generally, other European countries are not so exacting. Germany allows travel with European states that have fewer than 50 cases per 100,000 in the last 14 days; this excludes only Swedes from entering that country. Finland’s threshold is eight cases, and Denmark’s 20 in the previous week. By now, most other EU states allow their neighbours to come and go, even the Brits.
With the EU trying to move uniformly to greater travel freedoms, the choice for the Government here is not whether or not to ban overseas flights, but to decide where to set the bar for agreements with countries that have similar rates of infection.
Either way, the continuing confusion will put a dampener on the foreign tourism sector and a brake on levels of overseas travel – which is probably what officials want to achieve anyway.