Cross-border travel is confusing after COVID – this framework can help borders reopen safely

traveller

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Paul Meyer, Co-founder and CEO, The Commons Project & James Kondo, Chairman and CEO, International House, Japan & Christoph Wolff, Head of Shaping the Future of Mobility, World Economic Forum


  • Cross-border travel after COVID must be safe and predictable and shouldn’t require excess disclosure of personal health information.
  • Developing such crossing experiences will take cooperation between the health sector as well as aviation, travel and tourism sector stakeholders.
  • Timing is of the essence to prevent further harm to economies and make travelers comfortable with travel.

When the six nations of the East African Community opened to essential trade in June, COVID-19 testing created kilometers of backed up trucks along the borders as truck drivers waited for hours to get test results. By working together to share test results in a harmonized system, border crossing and regional integration was later accelerated within East Africa.

We need this kind of coordination and harmonization on a global scale. Unfortunately, that is not the current trajectory of COVID-19 era border crossing. COVID brought a patchwork of closed borders and complex border entry requirements as reopening countries attempted to balance the urgent need to restart travel and cross-border economic activity against the imperative of protecting their population’s health.

Such disparate efforts are slowing travel and halting a range of industries such as tourism. Without intervention, these efforts will lead to fragmented policies and procedures and make international travel confusing and uncertain long into the future.

Image: IATA

The need: Safe, dynamic borders that respect private data

For cross-border traffic to resume fully, travelers need border crossing experiences that are safe, predictable and do not require excess disclosure of personal health information. Such policies are not universally in place.

Each day, new bilateral travel bubbles are announced, governed by border crossing policies that also seem to shift on a near daily basis, reflecting differing policy approaches and the evolving consensus on testing effectiveness. (There is a lively debate, for example, about the validity of negative tests, and how long a negative test may be considered valid.)

Border procedures for travelers range from wearing a GPS tag for the full 14-day quarantine period to proof of a recent negative laboratory test to simple temperature screening on arrival. Once an effective vaccine is in place and widely available, proof of vaccination could be required.

Digital privacy concerns around COVID-19 have focused on contact tracing until now, but the same concerns will arise with the new proliferation of COVID-related travel and passporting apps. Travelers face the prospect of downloading different health screening apps for each country they enter, each airport they visit and every plane they board. Travelers could be required to share personal health information at every stage of their journey.

Even when borders are described as “open”, some policies, such as quarantine, make travelers reluctant to cross them. A recent study by IATA found that the drop of inbound travel to countries with a 14-day quarantine was nearly equivalent to countries with closed borders.

Image: IATA

The path forward: New collaborations and best practices

Recognizing that scientific consensus around testing and immunization is not yet mature and that global guidance around testing has yet to be developed, there is an urgent need to design a flexible model that can help us move past the current fragmentation and that can evolve and adapt as the science matures.

Such a model would allow travellers to use a common, standards-based platform to present their COVID-19 health status at each step of their journey, while keeping their other personal health information private and secure.

The Commons Project

The Commons Project, a non-profit public trust established with support from the Rockefeller Foundation to build global digital services and platforms for the common good, is working with a broad coalition of public and private partners around the world to develop and launch a standard global model to enable people to document their certified COVID-19 status to facilitate international travel and border crossing while keeping their health information private.

The framework, once further defined, will serve several needs.

  • For countries that require testing results, travelers will be able to document that they have been tested at a trusted lab in another country. The same model will be extended to include immunization records as vaccines become available. This cross-border certification will help reduce the incidence of forged lab results.
  • Help travellers clearly understand the current health screening and border entry requirements for any country they want to enter or airline they want to fly.
  • Allow travelers to demonstrate that they have satisfied health screening requirements without having to share their personal health information. That health data will be stored in such a way that they can be used to validate whether the person meets the screening criteria without the data leaving the person’s control.

These protocols provide global direction but require local implementation.

Governments will develop national or regional policies based on these protocols, and industry players will help ensure their consistent and effective implementation across the aviation, travel and tourism sectors while adapting to differing local conditions.

CommonPass enables these efforts by streamlining implementation and supporting interoperability between countries with differing policy regimes. It will also help travelers to collect the health records required for crossing a particular border and share them in a privacy-preserving manner.

Challenges ahead

Developing and scaling such a model will not be without its challenges. A new level of cross-industry cooperation between the health, aviation, travel and tourism sectors will be crucial. Comprehensive guidelines and protocols have already been developed by international organizations such as the World Health Organization (WHO), International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), International Air Transport Association (IATA), Airports Council International (ACI), the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) and others. Still, such changes will require a coordinated, harmonized approach that is as global in scale as the pandemic itself.

Additionally, time is of the essence. The deepening economic impact of closed and high friction border crossings places increased urgency on moving quickly from framework to implementation. Governments, businesses and travellers alike are eager to see change as soon as possible and implement an interoperable framework that can adapt to local conditions.

To this end, the CommonPass initiative kicked off July 2020 by convening ministers of health, tourism and international cooperation as well as industry representatives from technology, travel, health and tourism representing more than 50 countries as well as international organizations.

These experts will now refine the CommonPass framework and plan for its roll-out at the regional and global levels. The stakeholders are expected to reconvene in late summer 2020 to formally launch the CommonPass framework.

COVID-19 has turned many countries inward, fearful of interacting with other countries. The pandemic, however, has also shown the world’s capacity to innovate quickly and collaborate in unprecedented ways. Such an approach will be key to restarting international travel and restoring the global interconnectedness of the pre-COVID-19 era.

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