Public health considerations for international travel

The World Health Organization (WHO) has issued guidelines for national health authorities when considering or implementing the gradual return to international travel.

Many countries have halted some or all international travel since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic but now have plans to re-open travel.

The recently published WHO document aims to provide governments, health authorities of WHO Member States and relevant stakeholders with elements to consider in adjusting international travel measures to the changing epidemiological situation of the COVID-19 pandemic, national public health and health service capacity available in countries and evolving understanding of the virus.

The WHO recommends that the decision-making process should be multisectoral, and ensure coordination of the measures implemented by national and international transport authorities and other relevant sectors and be aligned with the overall national strategies for adjusting public health and social measures.

The detailed guidelines state that the gradual lifting of travel measures should be based on a thorough risk assessment, taking into account country context, the local epidemiology and transmission patterns, the national health and social measures to control the outbreak, and the capacities of health systems in both departure and destination countries, including at points of entry.

The WHO suggests that the responsibility for mitigation efforts to curb COVID-19 ultimately falls on countries and territories at destination. Countries should therefore have appropriate public health and health systems capacities, particularly at points of entry (ports, airports, ground crossings) to test, isolate and treat cases, and quarantine their contacts, and exchange information and data internationally, as appropriate.

The guidelines also recommend that countries should not charge travellers for measures required for the protection of health, including:

  • examinations to ascertain their health status
  • vaccination or prophylaxis on arrival (not published 10 days earlier)
  • appropriate isolation or quarantine
  • certificates specifying the measures applied
  • protections applied to baggage accompanying them