A cautious approach to international freedom

Kiwis are the ultimate travellers. We crave exploration, taking our products and a ‘number-eight wire' attitude around the world – and we're great at welcoming people to our shores.

So, as Covid-19 clipped our wings for quite a time, key questions are starting to burn: when will our borders reopen, and how can we do it safely?

MEttle spoke to two different experts in this area: Professor John Fraser, Dean of the Faculty of Medical Sciences at the University of Auckland and formerly Head of the School of Medical Sciences. He graduated from Victoria University and gained his PhD in biochemistry at Auckland University in 1983, followed by a postdoctoral research in Immunology at Harvard University. A Fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand for his work on superantigens (that result in excessive activation of the immune system), he has a long-standing interest in immunity and infectious diseases, particularly around the mechanisms of virulence and pathogenicity of gram-positive organisms.

Stepping out of the laboratory, Captain David Morgan oversees people safety, business continuity and emergency management as Chief Operational Integrity and Safety Officer at Air New Zealand. He is also Chair of the IATA Safety Flight and Ground Safety Committee and has a front seat to the development of a global solution to the Covid passport conundrum.

They share their views with MEttle, exuding cautious optimism when discussing the learning curve Covid-19 has provided, the importance of a successful vaccine programme and how we will gain international freedom once more.

Does a vaccine get us to the finish line?

How soon will we earn back our ability to travel internationally, and what do we need to do to get there?

Professor Fraser points out that if we are looking at all of this in terms of time, it’s worth remembering that it has only been 18 months since the world first discovered the virus – and while that may seem an age for a person living in locked-down UK, it's an altogether different scenario in terms of getting back to worldwide travel after an event of such global magnitude.

“Although it’s not the first time the globe has been hit by a viral pandemic, 18 months is a phenomenally short time for the world to develop such effective vaccines and put us in a position to be having a discussion about travel. In reality, the timeline has been very short, made possible by recent scientific and technological advances. If Covid-19 had struck 10 years ago, things would have been very different.

“New Zealand is extremely fortunate to have been spared the awful consequences seen in the likes of Brazil and India, mainly due to the approach taken by the New Zealand Government. Sure, they’ve made some mistakes, but they reacted to something very unpredictable in a very short space of time. Overall, I think the response to keep the virus out of New Zealand has been appropriate and the best in world.”

Professor Fraser suggests that the consequence of being so successful, and essentially sterilizing New Zealand from the virus, is that we’re not a high priority for a Covid vaccination solution, leading to a vaccine programme that appears to be taking longer than countries in high-risk locations like the UK and the US. However, he says:

“New Zealand does have a vaccine programme plan and sufficient resources are now in place to vaccinate the majority of the population over the next 18 months ‒ all actions that we’re now starting to see results from.”

So, if large numbers of people receive the vaccine, and particularly those people who are most at risk from severe cases of Covid, at what point could we re-open borders?

18 months is a phenomenally short time for the world to develop such effective vaccines.

Professor Fraser suggests it is possible to do so once we are sure we have relegated the virus to a seasonal virus that we deal with every year like the flu. However, he adds that he wouldn’t want to be the person to make that decision.

“It means changing the status of the virus from what we currently consider as a potentially lethal virus to a mild seasonal infection. It also doesn’t address the question of what proportion of the population needs to be vaccinated before we can we be assured that this will stem transmission of the virus, and thus can we open up our borders knowing we can handle any infection because the people likely to be severely infected are now suitably protected?”

And then there’s the question how long the vaccine provides protection.

“It’s a really important question. Normally, vaccines would not be released this quickly and would undergo approximately a decade of clinical trials, which then provide a clear indication of when re-vaccination is required. We don’t yet know any of that information; it’s one of the consequences of the rapid deployment of a vaccination programme for this virus.”

He regards the Pfizer vaccine as one of the credible vaccines developed and believes it will provide protective immunity of around one to two years, potentially longer with a booster shot. But not everyone will be vaccinated with the Pfizer vaccine, and other vaccines may be less effective over time which will further complicate the path forward.

Other vaccines may be less effective over time which will complicate the path forward.

“This poses the question whether the New Zealand Government acknowledges that at some stage this virus will come to New Zealand, and that we will have the ability to manage it in the same way that we manage other seasonal infections. Flu kills 0.1% of people who get it, if we can get Covid down to that level by protecting those at high risk, then this should make the decision to open borders and large-scale international travel easier.”

IATA to the fore?

David Morgan confirms that a global passport solution is already well underway, led by the International Air Transport Association (IATA).

“As an industry we need a single system which provides strong assurance that people coming into a country are not a threat, and knowledge that we are keeping air crews safe and not exposing them to the virus. The challenge is how do you prove that to the appropriate agencies or countries you’re trying to enter?”

Until now, he says, many travellers may only have known IATA as a logo on travel itineraries, but the organisation could become one of the most important in the world given its unique position in the information chain.

“Prior to Covid-19, IATA provided data around procedures, visas, health requirements and more when travelling globally. In the early days of the pandemic, individual countries were trying to find a Covid passport solution but quickly realised there were too many variables. As IATA already held the majority of individual country information, it has created the IATA Travel Pass and simply layered this process over the top of its current data.

“The IATA Travel Pass provides information to passengers on what tests, vaccines and other measures are required prior to travel and where they can get tested. Within the app, they can share their test and vaccination results in a secure and privacy-protected manner. The IATA travel pass effectively joins the dots of variabilities across countries to provide a confident result and provide governments the comfort to begin opening borders.”

At the moment the app is a mechanism that will tie your travel itinerary to the airline, border control, your passport and access your testing information if you choose to share it. The app is based on decentralised technology which means there is no central database holding passenger information, says Morgan.

“The next tranche of work is incorporating the vaccination information into these records.”

What will travel look like

Morgan believes that it is only a matter of time until we return to a ‘new-normal’, but there will be strings attached.

“Change is the constant for the aviation sector. September 11 changed aviation and Covid has changed it again. A Covid index will be key for airlines when people contemplate travelling. This will include factors like the prevalence of Covid in country of origin and destination, and the ability to get health insurance and receive support if you contract Covid.”

September 11 changed aviation and Covid has changed it again.

He says airlines and airports are already implementing changes that are likely to be here long-term.

“I chair the IATA Safety Flight and Ground Safety Committee, and my peer equivalent at Qatar is the Deputy Chair, so there is a lot of discussion on the best way forward. In airports for example, the trick might be to put a ‘fence’ around each country, and Covid-free countries go through a green zone and others through a red zone. The complication is how to deal with people arriving from the high Covid infection zones and still try to keep everyone safe.”

Professor Fraser agrees, saying that travel will become more available to countries whose rates of infection have been reduced by effective vaccination programmes, even if this takes some time to come through.

“Opening up borders systematically around the globe will be a tough decision to make. It will be done quite slowly, simply because it’s a high-risk decision and needs to be handled very carefully.”

The future

Professor Fraser stresses the catastrophic consequences the virus could have had on New Zealand and hopes that we don’t rush into opening borders without detailed consideration. He is hopeful that by year-end, New Zealand will be confident that the majority of our high-risk population is fully protected.

“We can then take a different view of what this virus represents to us and the best way forward.

“In two or three-years’ time Covid will pass into history as another pandemic the world dealt with effectively. I wouldn’t want to make rash decisions around opening-up borders and then paying the price for making the wrong decision. We’ve seen the dire consequences of other countries who have taken a different approach – I don’t think that’s going to happen within New Zealand.

“On the flip side, if we continue to keep the borders closed until we know everyone in the world is protected or not carrying the virus, we will never open them.”

Morgan agrees that we must have confidence that the pandemic will be resolved.

“We will have to live with it for the rest of our lives. As far as Air New Zealand is concerned, we had to change our business plan and how we operate. But black swan events occur, the key is to be ready and have a resilient organisation with the capability that can recognise these events and deal with them.

“Have confidence in travel but understand it will be different. IATA, airlines and governments are all working hard to create a solution that will enable people to travel freely and safely between countries.”

The IATA Travel pass effectively joins the dots of variabilities across countries to provide a confident result.

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MEttle, a collection of stories and interviews with influential New Zealand business leaders, curated by MinterEllisonRuddWatts.

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