Reviving global travel could require health passports

The experience of the European Union this summer, in which a general reopening of internal borders and encouragement by national governments to travel has fuelled a resurgence of COVID-19 cases, provides a concrete case study of how a “return to normalcy” in long-distance travel is unfeasible while the virus continues to circulate and neither vaccines nor treatments are available.

On the other hand, renouncing air travel altogether is hardly a solution, not least for the millions of people whose livelihoods depend on it. In order to facilitate the free movement of both business travellers and holidaymakers – and prevent the already decimated tourism industry from falling into total abandon – a solution needs to be found. Thankfully, a so-called “health passport” may provide exactly that.

Air travel industry in freefall

The economic impacts of coronavirus have hit all industries hard, but none more so than aviation. In the EU, it’s predicted airlines and cruises could lose up to 90% of their revenue this year, with travel agencies (70%) and hotels (50%) not far behind. European airports are estimated to experience 700 million fewer arrivals in 2020 – equating to around €14 billion in monetary terms – while the overall EU tourism sector (which directly employs some 13 million people) is projected to lose €1 billion per month for as long as the current healthcare crisis endures.

It’s a similar story in other parts of the world. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) expects global tourism to fall by up to 80% in 2020, resulting in a potential loss of as much as €383 billion in airline revenues alone. Given the tourism sector directly or indirectly accounts for 1 in 10 jobs worldwide, it’s expected 100 million people or more could face unemployment as a result of the pandemic – 13 million of those in the EU.

Aware of that fact, many European governments have attempted to accelerate the reintroduction of intracontinental tourism. Unfortunately, haste appears to have superseded prudence, given that many nations are now battling a second wave of the virus. In southeastern Europe, countries like Albania, Bulgaria and Romania are recording higher infection rates than ever before, while the UK, France, and Spain have all experienced a milder resurgence of the disease.

Indeed, such is the turnaround that the British government has revoked their 14-day quarantine exemption status for Spain, prompting the UK’s biggest tour operator to cancel all of its Spanish deals. This has thrown the holiday plans of countless Britons into turmoil, not to mention upsetting the Spanish authorities in the process. The precedent set by the decision has been interpreted by some analysts as one which could cause a domino effect across the whole of the European airline market.

Health passports could hold key

As such, it seems the aviation industry is caught between a rock and a hard place. Resurrect international travel and they run the risk of a resurgence in COVID cases, but stifle cross-border traffic and they could witness many of Europe’s three million tourism-based businesses – 90% of which are small- or medium-sized enterprises – go under. Fortunately, the scientific and technological communities may have come up with a solution to the conundrum: the health passport.

In essence, this piece of intelligent software contains a digital record of a person’s COVID-19 testing history, allowing them to quickly and efficiently demonstrate their health to airport officials. One such system, CovidPass, uses blockchain technology to share sensitive health information without sacrificing privacy concerns. The idea is the brainchild of a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader and, unlike the track-and-trace apps that have been implemented with unconvincing success across the globe, does not monitor the movements of the person in question, but simply presents their health records.

Another app, Certus myHealthPass, has been developed by Switzerland’s SICPA on the basis of its Certus brand of tamper-proof certificates. As the firm explains, Certus uses blockchain technology to generate tamper-proof QR codes authenticating data, such as physical and digital certificates; that same approach could soon be applied to certify COVID-19 vaccination status, once a vaccine is made available. myHealthPass is already scheduled for use by professional sports bodies such as the Russian Federation and is being investigated by football teams such as AS Monaco to certify the non-infection of spectators at matches. It’s believed the lucrative Premier League in England is monitoring the potential solution with interest, as well.

Either of these systems could provide a basis for efficient, non-invasive testing protocols at airports around the globe. Given countries such as France, the USA, Turkey and Japan are already introducing compulsory coronavirus tests for all arrivals into the country – and that some travellers are required to wait hours before receiving their results and being cleared to exit the airport – a health passport could be an attractive and time-saving alternative.

Not just a stopgap solution

While these passports could provide a much-needed immediate way to spark an ailing aviation industry into life, they’re likely to hold real long-term value as well. That’s because even the most optimistic predictions do not envisage a vaccine being discovered before the end of 2020, while the time it will take to scale up and roll out an effective treatment across a significant proportion of a single country’s population is likely to add months to the process, if not longer, and let alone across the entire planet.

As such, it’s likely the advent of an eventual vaccine won’t become available to the global public for the best part of two years, even in the best-case scenario. Given that a number of prominent airlines including LATAM, Avianca, Flybe and Virgin Australia have already filed for bankruptcy – and that aviation consultants CAPA predict the imminent collapse of “most” of their competitors without a helping hand – it’s clear a more urgent shot in the arm is desperately needed. Health passports could represent the short-term revitalisation and long-term stability that the industry requires to avoid being permanently grounded long before a vaccine is produced.

Image: Albrecht Fietz/Pixabay

Please follow and like us: