When covid-19 swept around the world, countries were quick to lock down, and lock out. Entry has been largely restricted, and only now are countries beginning to look at reopening borders.
But like all things with the pandemic, the devil is in the details, and countries are still erring on the side of caution. For many, that means 14 grueling days of mandatory quarantine, without leaving your residence. While it exists, travel largely won’t.
After encouraging studies, Canada is officially set to trial covid-19 testing regimes in place of lengthy quarantines, starting with arrivals into Alberta, as soon as next week. This means arrivals into Calgary International Airport and land borders will be able to experience shorter quarantine, with double testing.
With similar discussions emerging between the USA, UK and a variety of countries in Asia, change in the currently deadlocked travel status quo is brewing.
Could a successful trial save travel? It just might.
Canada’s plan is relatively simple. Travelers will submit to a covid-19 test on arrival, and agree to enter self quarantine for 24-48 hours until results are received. Once a negative result is confirmed, travelers are released to enjoy their trip, with a few important conditions.
Face coverings must be worn in public, and all arrivals must agree to a second test on day 7, to catch any travelers who were incubating the virus on arrival. Finally, visiting people in high risk groups, such as care homes is off limits. The test on day 7 can be taken at a local participating pharmacy or lab.
The trial is based on a study conducted between Air Canada and McMaster Health Labs in Toronto, which sparked new confidence in testing versus quarantine. The study found that under 1% of travelers entering the country at any time were infected with covid-19, and that a test 7 days after arrival was able to detect 100% of cases.
The first test on arrival weeded out 80% of covid-19 cases attempting to enter the country, and a second test 7 days after arrival was able to uncover the remaining 20%. No further cases were detected in days 7-14 or beyond during the groundbreaking study of 13,000 travelers. All travelers who test positive would submit to 14 days of quarantine, though ‘testing out’ after 7 days may still be possible.
Will It Work?
Officials are split over pre-flight testing versus testing on arrival to ensure control and accuracy of all testing, but data increasingly supports the science based approach. A test before departure would save hassle for some travelers, while further increasing the safety of air travel, but with false positives and non standardized testing creates extra variables.
14 day quarantine has quashed the travel industry, with no one, at least in mass market terms willing or able to isolate for 14 days during, before or after a trip. UK authorities estimate only 1/5 are actually following the rules too.
For an international trip from the UK to New York, one of the world’s most important business routes, 14 days of quarantine is required on arrival, and heading back to the UK, a full 14 days of quarantine is also required. It effectively means an entire month of isolation. Travel bubbles between the two are being discussed.
Surely, testing provides a better solution.
Cases are immediately isolated, while others who test negative are able to carry on responsibly, provided they practice hygiene, mask wearing and isolate when possible.
Even if one of these travelers is to test positive 7 days later, masks, hygiene and the avoidance of at risk groups would make them no more a threat than anyone else in a given community. Travel typically represents an extremely low percentage of covid-19 transmission in a country, with at least 80% due to locals not following protocols. Some countries are also insisting on avoiding public transit, which seems reasonable.
Countries including Australia continue to hold on to 14 day isolation in government facilities, but even that has limitations, particularly if tests aren’t conducted during the quarantine period to learn more about cases and clusters. Double testing provides not one, but two looks into passenger health, and with self monitoring and contact tracing, also mitigates an incredible percentage of risk.
The eyes of the world are on Canada, or more specifically Alberta as trials begin, as soon as November 2nd. Canada’s border with the USA remains closed to non essential travel, but a successful trial may create an appetite to safely reopen travel which other countries may follow. For many in the travel industry, the success of the trial could be existential.