A year and a half into the global Covid-19 pandemic, countless foreign holidays, work trips and family reunions have been delayed or cancelled.
And despite high vaccination rates in the UK – 64.5% of the population is now fully vaccinated – it seems many Brits are still reluctant to fly to a foreign destination. Bookings are 83% lower than pre-pandemic levels, Reuters reported.
Much of the reluctance to travel abroad may be linked to the government’s much maligned travel lists, but a new system based on the vaccination status of travellers could be in the works, according to Sky News. The government red-list could be scrapped and replaced by a simpler two-tier system, while day-two PCR tests for the double-jabbed could be dropped.
But as the pandemic continues to affect large swathes of the globe, is it possible to travel safely and ethically?
The risk of transmission
With high rates of vaccination in the UK, fully vaccinated people may feel that travelling abroad is now relatively safe. But just as double vaccination does not completely eradicate the chances of infection, neither does it remove the possibility of passing on the Covid-19 virus to someone else.
“Individuals who are vaccinated have protection – although not 100% protection – against developing the severe disease if infected with SARS-CoV-2,” Amy McGuire, professor of biomedical ethics at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas, told HuffPost.
“However, we are still generating evidence of how well different vaccines protect against transmission of the virus.”
The good news is that having the vaccine does appear to make passing on the virus extremely difficult – but not impossible. Early studies show that people who have received two doses of the Pfizer vaccine are “up to 78% less likely to spread the virus to household members than are unvaccinated people”, said Nature.
“It’s good news,” Natalie Dean, a biostatistician at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, told the scientific journal. “But it’s not quite good enough.”
That’s because it means that vaccinated people can still occasionally spread the infection, no matter their vaccination status.
The rise of variants
The spread of the Delta variant makes travelling safely more difficult, too.
A recent UK study shows that the Pfizer-BioNTech and Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccines both protect slightly less well against symptomatic disease caused by Delta than against that caused by Alpha.
“This could also mean a drop in how well they protect against transmission of Delta, but there is still a lot of uncertainty,” said Dean.
Access to vaccines
While many richer Western nations have high levels of vaccination and access to good healthcare, the same can’t be said for people living in many less economically developed countries around the world.
As The Washington Post noted, only 6% of the world’s population has been fully vaccinated, “leaving billions waiting for doses”.
And worldwide vaccination disparity is likely to continue for some time, according to Saskia Popescu, an infectious disease epidemiologist at the University of Arizona and George Mason University.
“Until you have worldwide access and adequate distribution of vaccines, then it’s going to inherently create inequity,” Popescu told the paper.
Travellers should therefore consider how well vaccinated their destination’s population is, and the robustness of its healthcare infrastructure.
Becoming ill, sick or injured while abroad could “add a potential burden” to already struggling or overloaded healthcare systems, warned Henry Wu, an associate professor of infectious diseases at Emory University School of Medicine, in the same paper.
Direction of travel
Overall, the ethics of travel “depends on where you live”, and where you are travelling to, argues Kelly Hill, a bioethicist and co-founder of the bioethics consulting firm Rogue Bioethics, in The Guardian.
If you are living and travelling from a country where “80% or more of the eligible population are fully vaccinated, and there is low overall incidence of Covid-19 both where you live and where you are travelling to” then, Hill argues, “it isn’t unethical”. But many countries around the globe are still struggling with high rates of infection.
Perhaps the best way to view travel is not as an ethical question, but rather as a “public health question of how best to minimize risk to yourself and to others”, said Dr Thomas Tsai, a surgeon and health policy researcher at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in the same paper.
This includes being considerate of, and following, local rules around testing, masks and social distancing, even if you’re fully vaccinated.
And then there is climate change
Famously, climate activist Greta Thunberg renounced air travel in 2019, crossing the Atlantic Ocean by boat to attend a United Nations global warming summit in New York. Should we all follow her example?
“Consider the aviation industry that produces between five and eight per cent of global emissions and impacts the climate most significantly,” wrote Matt Harker, a PhD candidate in theory and criticism at Western University, Canada, on The Conversation. Other estimates, however, put the aviation industry’s share at just 2%, meaning flying certainly isn’t the worst offender when it comes to carbon emissions.
What the break in global travel should allow us to do is rethink our “consumption behaviours, which includes where, when, how and why we travel”, argues Harker.
But if you’re concerned about reducing your own carbon footprint, then reducing the number of flights you take – or stopping altogether – is one of the most effective things you can do. This is because “more than 80% of the world’s population never fly at all” said the BBC – and so proportionally, flying contributes far more greatly to travellers’ carbon footprints.