The Malta Independent 30 May 2020, Saturday

Travel Blues…and Greens and Reds

Saturday, 23 May 2020, 07:54 Last update: about 6 days ago

Vikki Micallef

Can we go on holiday this Summer? No, we cannot. At least not according to the Midwives and Nurses Union, whose opinion is that the tourism minister is jumping the gun with vague plans that would allow tourism from “safe” countries registering a low prevalence of Covid-19.

The Union is more than justified in coming to the defence of the healthcare professionals who worked tirelessly to successfully contain the coronavirus. Reopening the air and seaports to international tourism may undo all their effort and self-sacrifice. So yes folks, our Summer holiday abroad is postponed indefinitely, but not without a good reason.

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Given the current economic background, the pressure is mounting on both sides of the health versus wealth divide. European governments, including ours, are torn between safeguarding the well-being of their citizens and reviving a tourist industry already in the throes of a crippling slowdown heavily impacted by grounded aircraft with nowhere to go. An industry that is absolutely vital to the Maltese economy.

Keeping the deadly virus in mind, the very thought of incoming tourists should give us the shivers. From now onwards, it will not be just a handful of hapless immigrants held captive out at sea on Maltese boats as an excuse to keep them from spreading the deadly coronavirus within the Maltese Islands. Soon, we shall be extending an open invitation to all and sundry for a fabulous holiday under the Mediterranean sun without putting limits on the privileged guest list from the so-called safe countries.

The problem is that it is the proverbial double-edged sword. Restricting free movement and reintroducing internal borders weakens the Single Market and the smooth operation of supply chains. Moreover, our European way of life in a Union where citizens can travel freely across borders, whether as workers, students, family members, or tourists is adversely affected. We must strive to restore this fundamental achievement of European integration.

Last week, the EU Commission issued a communiqué with the heading “Towards a phased and coordinated approach for restoring freedom of movement and lifting internal border controls”. It suggests that travel restrictions should first be lifted in areas with a comparable epidemiological situation.

But that is not all. The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) will undertake to maintain a map showing the level of Covid-19 transmission within the European Union. In the meantime, member states will be providing the necessary surveillance information to the ECDC so that the map is continuously updated.

A precondition to lifting travel restrictions, including across borders, is that containment measures such as physical distancing must be followed throughout a journey, from the start to its destination, including border crossings. Travel restrictions and border controls will be gradually lifted throughout the EU if epidemiological developments across Europe continue in their current positive trend.

But, if only we could travel abroad, where would we go to? The Esade Business School in Madrid came up with the idea of drawing up an alternative map of Europe dividing it into “green zones” and “red zones” in an attempt to save the Summer tourist season. Similarly, Tourism Minister Farrugia Portelli mentioned the possibility of travelling within “safe corridors” in Europe.

The green-labelled zone denotes a safe region. The label is obtained once that region can prove, beyond doubt, that the Coronavirus is under control, that its hospitals are not overloaded, that the growth rate of new infections is low and that tests are generalised.

The study proposes safe travel between regions and states that have a green label by, for example, keeping all motorway exits in red regions closed. Likewise, all trains coming from green areas will not be authorised to stop at red stations. Travellers could be asked for their residence permit as proof that they are indeed coming from a so-called green zone. In this way, it would be easier to control passenger traffic at the airports and seaports.

Which could be all well and good until one hears EU Commissioner for Home Affairs, Ylva Johansson’s take on such proposals. She states that member states cannot discriminate between EU passports. Once a border is opened, all EU nationals can go through, Schengen and non-Schengen, therefore, making this proposal realistically impossible to implement.

To the ordinary man in the street, a Summer vacation sounds a little complicated right now. Some people are still afraid to shop at their local grocery store, let alone plan a trip to another region or country.  Besides, this year’s prospective travellers would require more than a formal guarantee of accuracy by the ECDC, if the information provided by each member state to keep the ECDC Covid-19 map updated will be anything to go by.

Throughout the past three months we have been warned repeatedly by the Health Authorities not to leave our homes unless it is strictly necessary. It beggars belief that we are now being encouraged to travel even before a vaccine is found. Indeed, it is a most reckless way of getting public finances back into balance. Heaven knows, we are all suffering from lockdown fatigue but going away on a Summer holiday sounds just like a pipe dream.

On the one hand, we could fasten our imaginary seat belts and prepare for take-off to the unexplored destinations on our travel bucket list by taking a virtual tour. On the other hand, we could ask a talented artist to draw images of sunny and exotic distant resorts on the pavements outside our homes and then do a Mary Poppins magic trick to transport ourselves into the drawings. Or maybe, just maybe, we could all #StayAtHome and stay safe.

 

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