Travel testing irritation
Daryl Guppy
Passengers walk at the international arrivals area in Heathrow Airport in London, Britain, March 18, 2022. /Xinhua
Passengers walk at the international arrivals area in Heathrow Airport in London, Britain, March 18, 2022. /Xinhua

Passengers walk at the international arrivals area in Heathrow Airport in London, Britain, March 18, 2022. /Xinhua

Editor's note: Daryl Guppy is an international financial technical analysis expert. He has provided a weekly Shanghai Index analysis for media for the Chinese mainland for more than a decade. Guppy appears regularly on CNBC Asia and is known as "The Chart Man." He is a national board member of the Australia China Business Council. With China's restrictions on international flights to be lifted starting from January 8, is it reasonable for some countries to impose restrictions on the entry of Chinese tourists for political purposes? To which we derive "The recovery of outbound tourism" series and this is the first piece of the series. The article reflects the author's opinions and not necessarily those of CGTN.

Is the pre-departure polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test the best way to collect COVID-19 data or are they an unnecessary irritation on global travel? Or are they another political tool in an anti-China narrative?

Many countries have imposed COVID-19 checks on Chinese travelers. The difference is between those who acted with undue haste, making a political decision, and those who delayed the decision, acting on the basis of health advice. Some countries appear to have used this decision as a political tool in part of a broader strategy that paints China unfavorably.

The UK in particular acted against the advice from its own health authorities. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak's decision to impose COVID-19 checks on travelers from China is described by some health experts as a purely political manoeuver that would make no difference to the rise or fall of cases in the UK.

The UK government's Chief Medical Adviser Chris Whitty told Health Secretary Steve Barclay there was no clear evidence of significant benefits from testing travelers from China.

The Observer newspaper reported that Barclay discussed the issues with Sunak, who still decided it was more important for Britain to align itself with those nations – the U.S., Japan, Italy and Spain – that had already imposed such testing requirements. This became a political decision driven by Sunak's anti-China sentiment.

"I don't think it's likely the UK will get any public health benefit from this measure," said Professor Mark Woolhouse of Edinburgh University. "This can only have been done for political reasons."

Australia infectious diseases expert, Paul Griffin said he did not agree with the move from some countries to place entry restrictions on people travelling from China. "I think that the practicality and the feasibility … outweighs any potential benefit of implementing those sort of measures."

"And I would have liked to think we've learned from that by now and we just focus, once again, on those basics to minimize the impact of this virus, wherever it is."

The health advice suggests that pre-departure tests for travel out of or into China are a waste of time when it comes to preventing the spread of COVID-19.

Paul Tambyah, president of the Asia-Pacific Society of Clinical Microbiology and Infection in Singapore said despite China's reopening, there is no need for Singapore to toughen its entry requirements for travelers from China. The incidence of new cases in China appears to be no higher than in other countries such as Germany, France and the United States, and there is no evidence that travel restrictions are effective.

A sign indicating the testing center in Heathrow Airport in London, Britain, March 18, 2022. /Xinhua
A sign indicating the testing center in Heathrow Airport in London, Britain, March 18, 2022. /Xinhua

A sign indicating the testing center in Heathrow Airport in London, Britain, March 18, 2022. /Xinhua

A number of countries, including Australia, imposed the COVID-19 testing as a way of tracking the emergence of new COVID-19 variants. Australian Health Minister Mark Butler acting on heath advice, said. "The decision to implement these temporary measures has been made out of an abundance of caution, taking into account the dynamic and evolving situation in China and the potential for new variants to emerge in an environment of high transmission," Butler said.

This conclusion is backed by UK Professor Woolhouse: "Another reason for imposing the tests has focused on the need to track potentially dangerous new COVID-19 variants." Nonetheless, this data collection justification also reveals a political component because it gets applied inconsistently.

Woolhouse said, "But we already know of one variant that is spreading rapidly in the U.S. Variant XBB.1.5 now accounts for about 40 percent of cases in the U.S., but no one in the UK seems worried about it. Instead, a lot of noise is being made about hypothetical variants emerging in China."

It is crucial to track the potential emergence of new variants so that action can be taken to manage their impact. This is an essential part of any living with COVID-19 strategy. Data collection sits at the core of this management strategy. This is good science when it's applied to all travelers, particularly from countries with high infection rates including the UK, or low vaccination rates, like the U.S.

It is reasonable in some cases to apply pre-flight PCR testing as a way of tracking the development of new variants. This is a data collection exercise and it's essential that all the genomic information to be fed quickly and seamlessly into the internationally available data base. Except in cases of significant infection, it is not reasonable to apply this testing as a means of excluding or hindering travel.

Reliable, consistent and shared data collection through shared testing results is an essential COVID-19 management tool. The processes are a travel irritation, but there's no reason they should be used to hinder or prevent travel by Chinese or any other tourists. Chinese tourists, like those from any other country, can be welcomed as a vital component of a re-emerging global tourism industry and that helps to drive the global economy.

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