Travel in a time of Covid-19

UK Border crowds at Heathrow Airport

I’ve been hearing increasing numbers of social media friends talking on LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter about getting back to the normality of travelling again for business. Most of the comments I’ve seen are by friends who haven’t travelled since 2019, before the Covid-19 pandemic.

Some of the commenters speak of their apprehension at travelling again, venturing literally into the unknown. Others worry about ongoing exposure to infection risks. And others speak of the challenges at this time, some with a sense of adventure akin to their previous experiences.

In some countries, like the UK, we’re now in the aftermath of the almost-total shutdown of business and leisure travel that started in 2020 as countries everywhere grappled with Covid-19 and did what it took to care for the sick and terminally ill, and support and prevent a collapse of public health infrastructures. One major contributory way many countries did this was via lockdowns and restrictions on people’s movements.

Now we’re preparing to get back on the road again both for business and leisure, taking advantage of declining Covid-19 infection rates and lower numbers of deaths in many countries to try to regain a sense of the ‘old normal’ as we start planning travel during the summer.

Particularly for social and family travel, there’s growing pressure everywhere for governments to speed up the relaxation of restrictions on international travel at scale. We’re now in mid May with the peak of the traditional summer holiday season fast approaching.

Yet holidays and travel in the traditional sense in 2021 may be nothing more than an historical note, a marker of remembering simpler, safer pre-2020 times that we enjoyed when you could book great deals for your family and jump on a jet at a moment’s notice to fly off to sun and sand.

“Prepare yourself,” warns The Points Guy: there are “12 unexpected but significant ways travel has changed.”

This is a useful list to focus your thinking on the ‘new normal’ of international travel, from the arguably trivial (lounge chairs at the hotel pool may be unavailable) to the definitely serious (plan for crowded security and make hard copies of everything).

As countries begin to emerge from the restrictions on daily lives that we’ve all endured in one way or another for more than a year now, attention is growing on one significant area – that of proving you have been vaccinated against Covid-19.

Proof point

This is part of the new normal where, in order to travel from your home country to a foreign country, you must be able to show evidence of your protection if not immunity at multiple stages in your journey, from leaving your own country to arriving at the border of the foreign one.

As governments continue vaccination roll-outs across the world it’s becoming a pressing matter to figure out what a system of proof-of-vaccination would look like and that would be near-universally accepted almost everywhere you travel.

For that to be the norm we’re talking about something digital, perhaps a so-called vaccine passport that’s been the subject of a lot of debate in recent months.

The likely form would be an app that runs on your smartphone with summary information on your vaccinations, when given, etc. Perhaps the app would have a QR code or similar link that immigration at borders could scan to connect to centralised databases that validate what your app says.

If everything checks, you can enter the country without self-isolating or going into quarantine. The reverse procedure would apply when you return home.

This may sound simplistic and doesn’t address genuine concerns about privacy and data protections, among other things. Neither does it consider the reality of not everyone has a mobile phone, smart or otherwise. So until everything is digital, we have to cater for this, eg, by including the QR code I mentioned on all non-digital paperwork: booking confirmations, boarding passes, etc.

Of course there are other risks with this approach, notably forged and fake documents. We seem ill-prepared to even consider how to address that if the norm at Heathrow airport is over 100 fake paper vaccine certificates being discovered per day. And, according to the Guardian this weekend, there’s already a growing black market in the UK in fake Covid documentation.

Whatever happens, you still have to have been vaccinated – and be able to prove it by verifiable means – if you want to legitimately travel anywhere.

Here in the UK, the NHS app now shows the record of your Covid-19 vaccinations as this edited screenshot of my record shows.

It’s good but it needs to be part of an international effort that works to creating a universal method that avoids the nightmare of multiple vaccine proofs, or scenes at airport immigration like the one at the top of this page reported by Sky News in January.

While governments and others figure out what to do next, I believe a vaccine passport of some type is inevitable if we really are serious about balancing people’s desires and need to travel again with protecting people against getting infected and passing on the infection; and doing all of this in the most efficient, practical, data-private and secure ways possible.

It’s a view expressed by Paul Griffiths, the boss of Dubai International Airport, in a BBC interview yesterday:

If international air travel is to get moving again, “it’s up to the countries to decide what the entry requirements are, and it’s up to the airlines and the airports around the world to enforce it”, says Mr Griffiths.

“If this all works, and everyone comes together, vaccine passports will be a very, very simple way of us travelling without documents around the world.”

Makes sense to me.

Neville Hobson

Social Strategist, Communicator, Writer, and Podcaster with a curiosity for tech and how people use it. Believer in an Internet for everyone. Early adopter (and leaver) and experimenter with social media. Occasional test pilot of shiny new objects. Avid tea drinker.