IATA Travelpass and CommonPass, the COVID-19 passport: When international travel opens up, this is why I'm flying with Qantas

It's raining good news for travellers. State borders are reopening. Qantas flights are increasing, Virgin Australia is revving up and the prospect of a coronavirus vaccine means big changes in the wind. When that rolls out, you can start planning overseas travel to all those places we've been missing, with conditions. Qantas CEO Alan Joyce recently raised the prospect that a COVID-19 vaccine might be required for all Qantas international passengers, and possibly even domestic.

In an interview with A Current Affair host Tracy Grimshaw screened on Channel 9, the Qantas CEO announced "We will ask people to have a vaccination before they can get on the aircraft... for international visitors coming out and people leaving the country we think that's a necessity," Mr Joyce said. In a subsequent interview, he added "What we're looking at is how you can have a vaccination passport, an electronic version of it, that certifies what the vaccine is, is it acceptable to the country you are travelling to."

The reaction

A requirement to have a vaccination to ensure you're protected, as well as those sitting beside you when you fly? What's not to like about that?

Plenty according to the UK's Tradewinds Travel ("offer luxury, all inclusive and boutique holidays for Couples Only to the Caribbean Islands, Mexican Riviera Maya, Indian Ocean").

On November 24 in a company Twitter post, Tradewinds Travel announced "We have made a company decision today to not sell any @Qantas flights, even on a code share, following their announcement of no vaccination, no flight. There are far superior airlines with flights to #Australia"

Well, blimey. The anti-vaxxers went bonkers, shaking their rattles and raining invective down upon Qantas and Alan Joyce. I'm assuming they don't fly a great deal since being told to buckle their seatbelt and open/close their window shades as required must come as a sore trial. Not forgetting the tantrums that might ensue at airport security when told to empty their pockets and take off their jackets, jumpers and shoes.

Much of the scorn originated from the UK – Mr Joyce's Irish nationality did not go unremarked - and let's pause a moment to consider the relative success of our two countries in combating the coronavirus.

According to Worldometer, the UK had 608 deaths on November 24 from COVID-19. Australia had zero. The following day the figure was 696. Australia, nil. During the entire period of the pandemic Australia has recorded a total of 907 deaths. That's the UK's number on a bad day.

The controls imposed by Australia's state and federal governments have saved lives, and Mr Joyce's vaccination requirement is consistent with those controls. I'm on the side of Qantas. If a jab in the arm means I get to travel freely and fly among travellers who have also been vaccinated against COVID-19, that's an airline I want to fly with.

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Even for those who never intend to fly with Qantas, a refusal to vaccinate could see you spending a lot of time at home. In another sign of what the future holds, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced that when a vaccine becomes available, anyone arriving in Australia unvaccinated will find themselves in quarantine for 14 days, at their own expense. Expect many other countries to do the same. Travel insurers might likewise demand proof of vaccination status before issuing a policy that includes medical cover.

A COVID-19 passport gets a travel industry tick

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) is singing from the same song sheet as the Qantas CEO. On 23 November, the same day as Mr Joyce's announcement, the international airline regulator confirmed it was in the final development phase of the IATA Travel Pass, a digital health pass designed to support the safe reopening of borders. "Our main priority is to get people travelling again safely," the IATA statement read. "In the immediate term that means giving governments confidence that systematic COVID-19 testing can work as a replacement for quarantine requirements."

A similar concept has already been trialled. The CommonPass is an initiative of The Commons Project, a Swiss-based non-profit social enterprise. With the aim of restoring confidence in travel and returning global travel and trade to pre-pandemic levels, the CommonPass verifies a traveller's health status via a smartphone app. It includes evidence of any recent test results and, when one becomes available, proof of a vaccination against COVID-19.

In a trial run for the CommonPass run in late October, volunteers on a United Airlines flight from London to Newark were tested for COVID-19 when they boarded in the UK, with the results available on arrival in the US. If the CommonPass becomes widely accepted, the traveller would have a coronavirus test shortly before departure from their home.

According to Paul Meyer, US-based Chief Executive of The Commons Project, United Airlines, Virgin Atlantic, Jet Blue, Lufthansa and Swiss are planning to roll out the CommonPass in December. "Ultimately, for this model of testing and vaccination to work, we need a model that allows governments to trust other governments and the health data that comes from other countries," said Mr Myer. "Many countries right now are requiring testing, for example a negative PCR test for 48 hours or 72 hours before departure. As vaccines start to get distributed, I do think that will be a requirement for many countries."

For hotels, cruise operators and the rest of the travel industry, vaccinations and a COVID-19 passport could be a step toward the end of quarantine restrictions, and a return to pre-pandemic travel.

"I think it's just common sense that there will probably be a requirement to be vaccinated," says Graham Turner, CEO of Flight Centre. "Just as there is now if you're going to somewhere with yellow fever you need that so you can get back into the country, and I would imagine that that will probably happen by the time that international travel is fully back. COVID-19 is going to be around with us for some time and the vaccination is a way to keep it under suppression and to make sure that other countries are happy to take us and that we can come back without quarantining, so I think there's a reasonable case for that to happen."

See also: What a sudden coronavirus outbreak would mean for our summer holidays

See also: Lessons Australia could learn from Singapore's international reopening

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