The OECD Safe International Mobility Initiative

How can governments develop their own safe, science-based international mobility policies? Banner image: Shutterstock/DimaBerlin

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This article is part of a series in which OECD experts and thought leaders  from around the world and all parts of society  address the COVID-19 crisis, discussing and developing solutions now and for the future.

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How many of us have been dreaming of foreign places over the past 15 months, during a time when for many of us “travel” has consisted of a walk from the bed to the bathroom For the most part, international travel has been illegal or has required a multi-stage, carefully planned process of COVID-19 tests, social distancing and quarantine.

Now, as we approach the northern hemisphere summer, perhaps, tentatively, can we dare to search for our passports? Are we finally able to tell family members—that we have only seen recently in pixelated images—that yes, we are on our way at last?

Well, as we have all learned over and over again, this pandemic is good at taking our fondest hopes, tying them in knots and casually throwing them into the trash can of unrealised fantasies. The Delta variant is worryingly more transmissible and—possibly—more dangerous than other forms of COVID-19, and the number of cases has started to rise again in some countries. It is understandable that countries are being cautious. We have once again seen headlines of “travel chaos”, as countries tell travellers to come home now or face periods of quarantine. 

Still, if we look beyond the next few weeks towards the coming months, we have cause for hope. Vaccination is proving effective in reducing not only disease severity, but also transmission. Once enough people have been vaccinated, the balance of risks changes when permitting more international travel. If travellers bring in some cases of COVID-19, it will be less likely that this will lead to community outbreaks of disease, and less likely that it will to lead to serious cases, hospitalisations and deaths among a highly vaccinated population.

Find out more about the OECD’s work on The race to vaccinate

Find out more about the OECD’s work on The race to vaccinate

Unless the pandemic throws up new surprises, many OECD countries are considering letting those who are fully vaccinated travel to their countries. But the details for making this happen are complicated.

Which vaccines, for example? What about people who have antibodies because they have had the disease and recovered? How about those who cannot receive a vaccine due to allergies? Those who have not been vaccinated may still be allowed to travel, but what tests should they take, and when? Should they quarantine—and for how long? How should the tests and quarantine conditions vary according to the number of cases in the origin and destination country? If every country has different answers to these questions (and many others), the result will be a complex mosaic of rules, confusing for the traveller, costly for travel companies and difficult to enforce for border authorities.

This is why at the OECD’s 60th anniversary celebrations in December 2020, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez asked the Organisation to work on an initiative to promote safe international mobility. During the first months of 2021, OECD experts in transport, trade, tourism, economics, health, migration, public governance and the digital economy worked together with national ministries, agencies of the European Union, international organisations such as the International Civil Aviation Organisation, the World Health Organisation and the UN World Tourism Organisation, as well as many stakeholder organisations. Well over 100 separate meetings and intense technical work resulted in a blueprint for safe international mobility during the COVID-19 pandemic, presented to the OECD’s main annual Ministerial on 31 May.

Read the response: OECD initiative for safe international mobility during the COVID-19 pandemic (including blueprint) 

Read the response: OECD initiative for safe international mobility during the COVID-19 pandemic (including blueprint) 

The blueprint is not a legal instrument—the situation in each country and the attitudes of their citizens vary too much for a one-size-fits-all approach to work. Rather, it gives guidance to countries on what is good practice, consistent with the scientific evidence, which governments can use to develop their national policies.

A particular concern is how to prove the results of your test or vaccination status. Unfortunately, it is all too easy to buy convincing fake vaccination or testing certificates on the dark web. Turning up at a border crossing with a piece of paper in a foreign language and asking a border guard to believe you when you tell them that it is genuine is not good enough. An international system which provides something more secure, such as a QR code or a bar code that cannot easily be forged, is therefore needed. Travellers should be able to voluntarily show this code to authorities who will validate it during travel. This will prevent travellers’ personal data from being stored in a central place, or even transferred across borders. Guidance on how this can be achieved is also provided in the blueprint.

Many of us have good individual reasons for wanting international travel to restart—family reunions, well-deserved holidays, reconnecting with business contacts. But even if we don’t need to travel ourselves, we should still want to promote safe international travel: international air passenger transport dropped around 75% in 2020 and international tourism fell by around 80%. For the average OECD country, pre-pandemic, international tourism contributed 4.4% of GDP, 6.9% of employment, and 21.5% of service exports, but with much higher shares for some countries including Greece, Iceland, Mexico, Portugal and Spain. The halt in international travel and tourism is having a dramatic knock-on impact on the entire global economy.

The OECD initiative for safe international mobility maps a way for countries to consider how to open borders safely, and let those dreams of sunny beaches, hugs from grandparents and opening up travel-dependent businesses become a reality once again.

Find out more about the OECD's work on Tourism

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Mark Pearson

Deputy Director of Employment, Labour and Social Affairs, OECD

Mark Pearson is Deputy Director of Employment, Labour and Social Affairs at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Prior to 2014, he was Head of the Health Division where he helped countries to improve their health systems by providing internationally comparable data, state-of-the-art analysis and appropriate policy recommendations on a wide range of health policies. Major current work of the Division is on the economics of preventing obesity; comparisons of the prices of health care goods and services; assessing long-term care policies; trends in health spending; expanding health coverage; co-ordination of care; pay-for-performance; use of evidence in health care; the migration of the health-care workforce; health care quality indicators; measuring health care outcomes, outputs and inputs; and health and ICTs. Key publications resulting from the work he has managed include OECD Health at a Glance and Achieving Better Value for Money in Health Care, as well as The Economics of Prevention: Fit not Fat. Before moving to Paris, he was employed by the Institute for Fiscal Studies in London, and he has been a consultant for the World Bank, the IMF and the European Commission.