Reuters – The United States will reopen air travelers from China, India, the UK and many other European countries fully vaccinated against COVID-19 in November, the White House said on Monday, lifting tough travel restrictions related to a pandemic which were imposed from the beginning of last year.
The decision announced by White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator Jeff Zients marked an abrupt U-turn for President Joe Biden’s administration, who said last week it was not the time to lift restrictions. The restrictions had prevented tens of thousands of foreigners from flying to the US to see family members and reduced business travel.
The restrictions on non-US citizens were first imposed on air travelers from China by then-President Donald Trump in January 2020 and expanded to other countries in the months that followed, with no clear metrics as to how and when they should be lifted.
The United States will allow fully vaccinated air travelers from the 26 so-called Schengen countries in Europe, including France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Switzerland and Greece, as well as Great Britain, Ireland, China, India, South Africa, Iran and Brazil. The existing policy had banned non-US citizens who had been in these countries within 14 days.
Zients did not give an exact start date, other than “early November”.
The new policy was announced before the United States welcomed leaders from Britain, India, Japan and Australia to the White House this week and before Biden made his first speech to the UN General Assembly on Tuesday.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson called the announcement “a fantastic boost for business and trade, and great that family and friends on both sides of the pond can be reunited”.
Unvaccinated Americans traveling from abroad must have a negative COVID-19 test within one day of travel and provide evidence of purchase of a virus test upon arrival in the United States.
Countries imposed numerous air travel restrictions and bans during the pandemic to help slow the spread of COVID-19. The guidelines devastated international travel and tourism, and rocked the aviation industry, which implemented a series of service cuts and employee vacations.
Airlines for America, an industrial trade group, said international air traffic had declined 43% from pre-pandemic levels by the end of August.
Sean Doyle, CEO and Chairman of British Airways, said the news was “a historic moment and one that will give the global UK a huge boost as it emerges from this pandemic”.
The shares of British Airways parent IAG rose 11%.
Germany’s US Ambassador Emily Haber welcomed the “Great News” on Twitter and added: “It is extremely important to promote interpersonal contacts and transatlantic business.”
WHAT VACCINES? The White House said the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) will decide which vaccines are eligible, even if those that aren’t approved by U.S. regulators are acceptable. Foreign nationals must present proof of vaccination prior to travel and do not have to be quarantined upon entry.
There will be some exceptions to the vaccination policy, officials said, including for children who cannot yet be vaccinated. The new rules do not yet apply to travelers crossing land borders with Mexico and Canada.
Some Europeans and others on the Restricted Countries List are allowed to travel to the United States, including students, journalists, and others who can get permission from the State Department.
Zients said the United States would again extend restrictions on non-essential travel until October 21.
Critics say travel restrictions no longer make sense as some countries with high COVID-19 rates are not on the blacklist, while some countries on the list have the pandemic under control.
The US Travel Association trade group previously estimated that if the restrictions were in place by the end of the year, they would cost the US economy $ 325 billion in total losses and 1.1 million jobs.
Airlines lobbied heavily for lifting restrictions at the White House but failed to lift them in time for the summer travel season. The White House said in July it had concerns about the highly contagious coronavirus delta variant and an increasing number of US COVID-19 cases.
Zients said on Sept. 15 that with the rise of the Delta variant, it was not the time to lift travel restrictions. When asked on Monday what has changed since then, Zients cited rising global vaccinations, adding, “The new system allows us to put strict protocols in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19.”
Zients said the new system will include collecting contact tracing data from passengers traveling to the United States to enable the CDC to contact travelers exposed to COVID-19.
Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, China and the United States have argued over air travel. In addition, Biden added new travel restrictions for India in April. Biden also lifted Trump’s plans to lift restrictions on European countries in January.
(Reporting by David Shepardson and Andrea Shalal; additional reporting by Sarah Young Editing by Franklin Paul, Will Dunham and Heather Timmons)