WHO advice against holiday travel gets mixed reaction from countries

Passengers queue for a flight at Frankfurt airport, Germany, November 2020. Credit: AP Photo / Michael Probst

WHO advice against holiday travel has received a mixed reaction from countries and international travellers eager to reunite with families.

With the December holiday season approaching fast, countries are firming up their coronavirus guidance for the festive period. While parts of Asia that have generally been successful in controlling the virus move to introduce new restrictions to prevent its resurgence, countries across Europe where cases remain high have announced a variety of approaches this week.

Festive gatherings. France has announced a limited easing of its strict nationwide lockdown as cases fall and Germany looks set to approve larger private gatherings over the Christmas break, while the UK has announced new rules allowing multiple households to mix over the holiday as it prepares to exit its current lockdown. At the other end of the scale, Spain appears set to recommend limits of just six people for festive gatherings, as cases remain high. Meanwhile, Switzerland has not yet confirmed its recommendations for the holidays although officials at the Federal Office for Public Health have said it is working on a list of practical advice, including self-quarantine 10 days before the Christmas dinner, meetings limited to two families.

Holiday travel. While the WHO has issued its strongest warning to date against holiday travel, the reaction from policy makers, as well as from people on the ground has clearly been mixed. When asked about advice on restrictions over the festive period during a press conference on Monday, WHO officials warned that any easing of restrictions will come with risks.

“There is no safe or unsafe decision. There is only higher and lower risk of the situation getting better or worse, depending on what you do, ”said Dr Michael J Ryan, executive director of the WHO's health emergencies program. “The science is straightforward. If there is significant community transmission in your country, and you don't have the necessary public health architecture to track and trace and isolate and quarantine contacts, then further opening will result in increased transmission. There's no question about that. ”

“The science is clear. The policy is what's not clear, and each government will have to decide on its policy based on those trade-offs between the epidemiological risk versus the economic and social risk of continuing to have people in restricted situation over a holiday period, ”he added.

Varying approaches . Some countries, notably the US , are heeding the advice. The US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) issued its stiffest warning yet, against travel over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend to prevent a further rise in new infections that have already exceeded 1 million new cases a week - among the highest in the world. A surge was also evident after Canada celebrated its national Thanksgiving holiday in October.

Top US infectious disease expert Dr Anthony Fauci has urged Americans to "think twice" about holiday travel plans, adding that even "innocent home gatherings" with family could lead to outbreaks.

“The safest way to celebrate Thanksgiving this year is at home with the people in your household,” said the CDC's Dr. Erin Sauber-Schatz in a recent statement.

In France, the advice given by Emmanuel Macron was the polar opposite, with the President announcing people will be able to share “moments with the family” and lifting the main travel restrictions. The UK has also relaxed its lockdown restrictions to allow non-essential travel, and cut current quarantine restrictions for international travel from 14 days to as little as five if a negative test is obtained on the fifth day.

Switzerland is laxer than most. Switzerland has stoked anger from European governments and experts alike for opening its ski resorts for the early winter season, although officials have repeatedly reassured that Covid-safe measures are in place in resorts. Unlike neighbouring France, Austria, Germany and Italy, Switzerland has not advised against ski-related travel. That, coupled with the country loosening restrictions on international travel, has led to widespread concern that the move will lead to a surge in coronavirus cases just as numbers begin to fall - an outcome other European countries have specifically warned against.

WHO special Covid-19 envoy David Nabarro explicitly criticised the move, saying Switzerland could reach a “very high level of sickness and deaths” if a third wave spreads across Europe in early 2021 following the relaxation of national restrictions.

“Once the infection rates sink, and they will sink, then we can be as free as we want, Nabarro said on Sunday, referring to Switzerland's currently high infection rates. “But right now? Should ski resorts open? Under what conditions? '”

Personal judgment. Although many of the policies announced this week have been considerably more lax than some experts would have hoped, Governments have been largely unanimous in their advice to the public to use their own judgment over the festive season, in considering whether travel and family gatherings are the best approach.

In a sentiment reflective of what many expatriates in Geneva and across the world are most likely feeling right now, WHO's Maria Van Kerkhove, the organisation's Covid-19 technical lead, said on Monday that although the WHO has supported governments to make 'risk-based approaches' with their policies, much still relies upon individual decisions.

“In some situations, the difficult decision not to have that family gathering is the safest bet,” she said. “So everyone will need to take that decision based on your current situation, based on your family, based on where you need to travel.”

“But I do want to say that even if you can't celebrate together this year, you can find ways to celebrate when this is all over,” she added. She added that her own family is “going to have one heck of a celebration” when it is safe to do so, “regardless of when that is.”