Travel in Harmony: European co-ordination to protect green zones

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Travel in Harmony: European co-ordination to protect green zones

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. Aiming to foster the fruitful exchange of expertise and perspectives across fields to help us rise to this critical challenge, opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the views of the OECD.

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Is Europe finally rising to the challenge? European member states have adopted the traffic light system, a co-ordinated strategy to halt the spread of COVID-19 while restoring safe mobility across the continent. This plan – which agrees in its key aspects with the policy proposal we circulated to the Commission as well as the French and Spanish government in early May – is an important step. Harmonising the wide-spread use of colour codes to indicate the epidemiological situation of regions is essential. Nevertheless, the plan is still lacking common, comprehensive guidelines for mobility restrictions to and from zones where the virus is not under control.

More on the Forum Network by the same authors: Beyond Country Borders: Local measures and international co-ordination to face COVID-19

As the New Year holidays approach, we must remember that zoning is not just about stringent measures in red zones, but also about harmonised mobility restrictions between red and green. Without the latter, the distinction between red and green zones becomes a weak policy tool. The dramatic experience of summer 2020 has shown us how going from green to red is just a matter of time as the virus literally rolled across the continent. The reintroduction of the virus to green zones has put the progress made into jeopardy and ultimately risks renewed nationwide lockdown measures.

To illustrate the key role of mobility in the spread of the virus, consider two regions with opposing epidemiological situations: a red zone with a particularly high incidence of the virus (Paris), and a green zone (Crete). In the absence of mobility restrictions, a predictable number of importations can be expected as vacationers will move from the former to the latter. Complicating the situation, people from many places may get infected while on vacation in Crete and thus export the virus to yet other regions. Thus, all of Europe might become red.

Figure 1. The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control colour-coded map indicating the varying epidemiological situation of European regions (correct as of 22 October 2020).

To avoid this catastrophic scenario, reducing the mobility from red to green zones is a potent measure if implemented immediately. Our increased understanding of how the virus propagates allows for targeted restrictions rather than blanket travel bans, thus reducing the overall economic and personal hardship for citizens. Consequently, red zones and disproportionately affected industries, notably the tourism and transport sectors, should be compensated. Some federal states in Germany, for example, have recently introduced a rule forbidding travelers from red zones to stay in hotels in other zones across the country.

Isolationist and unilateral measures have put one of Europe’s foundational values in peril: free movement. But things have changed.

Reducing mobility from red to green zones has been successfully used during the second wave in various countries, such as China or Australia. In the latter, by limiting travel to and from the states of Victoria and Queensland (both red zones), the other four states have been spared from the second wave. Minimising mobility reduces the overall number of re-importations into green zones, and thus the likelihood that community transmission starts over again — that is, virus transmission that cannot be traced back to a new importation. This is particularly true for the coronavirus, which has a high clustering coefficient — while around 75% of infected individuals do not transmit the virus to anybody, 10% of virus carriers are responsible for 80% of total transmissions, the so-called super-spreaders. Thus, most infections do not lead to large transmission chains. Apart from local public health measures to avoid super-spreading events, minimizing the number of re-importations is the key to achieving close to zero community transmission. Protecting green zones keeps the most vulnerable people who live in these zones safe. Further, allowing green zones to return to economic and social activity is essential to saving social cohesion and ensuring economic stability.

Our memory is scarred by the national and international travel restrictions strictly enforced at the outset of the pandemic. Isolationist and unilateral measures have put one of Europe’s foundational values in peril: free movement. But things have changed. Today, our increased understanding of the virus allows for targeted and less invasive measures. A concerted effort to protect green zones is the key to a safe and efficient path towards recovery. Europe has shown will – but will the countries show grit?

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