Telling people not to travel overseas on holiday is wrong-headed

Preventing travel will not suppress Covid-19 when it is still circulating in Ireland

Dublin Airport the day after the third phase of coronavirus lockdown restrictions were eased. Photograph: Colin Keegan/Collins

Dublin Airport the day after the third phase of coronavirus lockdown restrictions were eased. Photograph: Colin Keegan/Collins

 

To travel or not to travel in the spectre of coronavirus – that is the question.

Ireland has been four months in lockdown, and the surge of Covid-19 is over. But there continues to be sporadic community transmission of the virus, mainly cases where people never left the country more so than cases of it being imported into Ireland.

Many countries have thrown caution aside and opened up for business as usual, including the US and Brazil, and their outcomes are tragic. We have done much better in suppressing coronavirus through early lockdown . But what is the end game? Forever in lockdown, forever without travel? And what is the timeline? How many years will the pandemic continue? There is not a realistic end game (elimination is not yet possible) and there is no timeline for how long we must delay getting back to the “new normal”.

I have been asked, based on my personal experience as a doctor and researcher, about my opinion on current advice from the Government on international travel for summer holidays. And the recommendations coming from the Government are essentially saying, to paraphrase, cancel all your summer travel plans and take a holiday in Ireland.

I would have been happy to travel to Greece, with all appropriate hand-washing, social distancing and use of face masks

Conceptually, that is a good idea. Those who can change plans should cancel their summer international travel and brave the Irish summer with a smile. I will probably cancel my August beach holiday booked six months ago, as the country I booked is surging with coronavirus.

I would have been happy to travel to Greece, with all appropriate hand-washing, social distancing and use of face masks, both while in transit and while there. And I would feel it safe to return to Ireland without risk to those I cherish. So it is reasonable to have certain “air bridges”, including Greece, where it is safe for Irish people to travel and return, as long as they follow all appropriate prevention behaviours.

Instead I will probably go to visit sick relatives in Scotland, and I would place Scotland currently as higher risk. I would turn my trip there into my summer holiday, and try to make the most of it. I need time away and a holiday myself (it’s been tough for us all) and I would do everything at all stages of my Scottish holiday to conduct “Covid prevention” safely. People are travelling, and we should be ensuring safe travel, not chastising those who wish to travel and deciding what is okay and what is not. It is the personal responsibility of every Irish citizen who chooses to travel to make sure they do so safely.

Common sense

Some of my colleagues have used the term “leisure holiday” to mean something that is “bad” – but “essential travel” as acceptable. It is not that simple. We all have personal freedom and with that freedom comes personal responsibility. Covid-19 has brought out so many polarised opinions and a lot of mud-slinging,

It is important that we find a middle ground and use a little common sense. We cannot continue isolation as a strategy. We cannot just wait and see what happens in other countries. We have to accept our current lives, as Covid-19 circulates worldwide, as the “new normal”.

Our airports need to reopen and scale up safely, our airlines need to restart and all of the services that support the travel industry need to restart

There is no Covid-19 vaccine, no herd immunity, no hope for “cure” or even real effective treatments. At the moment, masks are the best “vaccine” ; and going on with our lives cautiously is the only solution as we wait for either the to virus die out (we all dream) or the magic vaccine, which I pray will be discovered but fear will never come.

So what are the consequences if we continue with lockdown and isolation? Our mental health will suffer, our economy will suffer, and our non-coronavirus-related health will suffer. We cannot afford to delay further, we must make the best decisions based on the new reality. Our airports need to reopen and scale up safely, our airlines need to restart and all of the services that support the travel industry need to restart. We need to do it cautiously, both inside and outside Ireland. So face coverings, hand-washing and social distancing when possible are the new mantra for the immediate and maybe long-term future.

Our new lives

Avoiding international travel whenever possible is always good advice. But to tell people to cancel their summer holidays and only take holidays in Ireland is a step too far. Will preventing travel result in us suppressing Covid-19 when we have ongoing circulation of the virus in Ireland in those who have never travelled?

We need to focus on what our current level of preparedness is when Covid-19 clusters flare up in Ireland, which they will. We need to continue educating our citizens on prevention. So be safe in everything you do. We cannot continue with lockdown, social distancing, and a ban on travel. We all must go on with our new lives and learn best practice as we go forward.

We must learn from our mistakes, make improvements based on these lessons, and not make the same mistakes again

This is a new virus, and we must have an open dialogue about what is best, based on our own experiences and expertise, and learning from Ireland and from other countries; and we must learn from our mistakes, make improvements based on these lessons, and not make the same mistakes again. What are our plans for the next flare-up of clusters within Ireland? We need a detailed plan, and we need clear messages from our Government, messages that protect individuals and society. Physical health, mental health and financial health can all be dealt with in parallel, not at the exclusion of each other.

Dr Jack Lambert is professor of medicine and infectious diseases, Mater and UCD School of Medicine

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