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Are Vaccine Passports The Reason For Stalling?

The use of vaccine/health passports for travel in the U.S. received two sources of support this week. One was in the form of a new bill heading to the House of Representatives (asking for all plane and train travelers in the U.S. to show proof of their Covid-19 health status) and the other was from Dr Fauci, declaring his support for banning unvaccinated Americans from flying.

Indeed, it has been reported that the White House is only considering reopening travel up to EU and U.K. travelers if people can show proof of vaccination.

However, there is a serious question mark over the political possibility of introducing a travel policy which remains so polarising across the country–and this could be a major factor in why the reopening of transatlantic travel has stalled and why the U.S. travel ban remains in place.

The key pressure this week for showing proof came from three sources:

  • With nearly 80 million Americans vaccinated, Dr Anthony Fauci, the director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases gave his support for all unvaccinated Americans to be banned from taking any flights, domestic or international. As reported in The Independent, Fauci said “I would support that if you want to get on a plane and travel with other people, you should be vaccinated.”
  • Democrat representative Don Beyer introduced a bill in the House of Representatives Thursday called the The Safe Travel Act, asking that all travelers on aircraft or trains show proof of vaccination or a negative Covid-19 test result taken in the past 72 hours before boarding. Beyer said that “requiring airport and Amtrak travellers and employees to provide a proof of Covid vaccine or negative test is just common sense.”
  • One day later, the White House said it was open to all ideas, with Covid-19 response coordinator Jeff Zients saying, “I think we have a very strong track record that shows we’re pulling available levers to acquire vaccinations and we’re not taking any measures off the table.” As reported by Business Insider, this could mean the White House is considering introducing testing or a vaccination requirement for domestic air and long-distance train travel–on the heels of new policies encouraging federal workers to be vaccinated. At the same time, President Biden continued his encouragement to get vaccinated–“We’ve been patient, but our patience is wearing thin,” President Biden said. “And your refusal has cost all of us. So, please, do the right thing.”

What’s more, new real-world research showed that testing on flights does considerably help in the limitation of the Covid-19 virus–newly published results proved this week that exposure to Covid-19 on flights where every passenger has tested negative was less than 0.1%. The study has been ongoing since December 2020 on transatlantic flights with Delta Air Lines where all passengers boarded after a negative PCR test result taken within 72 hours.

The airline’s chief health officer Dr Henry Ting said of the real-world data in The Telegraph that “when you couple the extremely low infection rate on board a Covid-19-tested flight with the layers of protection on board including mandatory masking and hospital-grade air filtration, the risk of transmission is less than one in one million between the U.S. and the U.K., for example.” Ting added that “these numbers will improve further as vaccination rates increase and new cases decrease worldwide.”

The use of so-called vaccine passports is highly contentious in the U.S., and in the U.K., the idea is touted seemingly every other week before being suspended. Where it has been put in place, there have been political protests against their use (such as in France) but coupled with an increase in vaccination rates–in the EU, they are referred to as Digital Covid Certificates to avoid being political labelled as vaccine passports. And to be clear, people do not need to be vaccinated to use them in most places, but they do need to regularly show proof of negative Covid-19 test results.

And it is possibly for this reason that the Biden Administration is biding its time in revoking the U.S. travel ban to EU and U.K. travelers–because in order to open travel back up, it wants to do so with some sort of rules on vaccination, needs the systems in place to check for health status, but doesn’t want to take a political misstep over being seen to favor health passports.

Edward Alden, a columnist at Foreign Policy, a visiting professor at Western Washington University, and a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations (an American nonprofit think tank specializing in U.S. foreign policy and international affairs) called the current U.S. travel ban “thoughtless” and “unscientific” for how it allows in travelers from countries with poorer vaccine rates than those countries which have vaccinated the bulk of their adult populations.

Alden believes the White House “fears the administration will pay a political price if it is seen to be favoring so-called vaccine passports—a Republican bugaboo.” For this reason, he writes, the U.S. has made no inroads into putting a system in place for arriving foreign travelers, that the status quo is favored by both the Republicans and Democrats at present, and that the U.S. travel ban might be in place until the 2022 U.S. midterm elections.

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