It turns out that a massive increase in cross-border travel — particularly by air — is a great way of spreading an airborne virus.
“Pack your bags, Europe is opening back up!” That was the message sent out, to great fanfare, just a month ago. Many Northern Europeans, starved for the best part of two years of sun, sea and sand, flocked southward. But unfortunately, it turns out that cross-border travel — particularly by air — is a great way of spreading an airborne virus. The Covid-19 pandemic is once again raging in many of Europe’s vacation hot spots, from Portugal to Spain, to Malta and Greece. Catalonia, from where I am writing this article, is one of the worst hit.
For the first time in over a year and a half, Barcelona, the region’s capital, is crawling with tourists (albeit, thankfully, not nearly in the same numbers as before). But it’s unlikely to last, given that the number of Covid cases is surging to dangerous levels. With an infection rate of 1,160 per 100,000 over a 14-day period, Spain’s north-eastern region boasts one of the five worst rates of contagion in mainland Europe. Infections are expected to peak at the end of this month, by which point the region’s hospitals anticipate having as many as 500 patients in critical condition, said Gemma Craywinckel, the director of public health.
As recently as two weeks ago, the local government’s health secretary, Josep Maria Argimon, was blaming the rising cases on two factors: the “more contagious” delta variant and a surge in social interaction among local people, particularly the young as they embarked on their end-of-school-year trips and made merry during the Sant Joan midsummer festival (June 23). But last week he finally admitted that the recent surge in overseas arrivals had also played a part: “Catalonia’s position as an important tourist destination makes it more likely that an explosive situation can occur.”
It’s impossible to know how many of the incoming tourists have been vaccinated and how many haven’t. Based on my own on-the-ground observations, most of them are in their twenties, thirties or forties. Quite a few of them are not wearing masks as they pour into shops and other indoor settings, even though their use indoors is mandatory here in Spain. My wife, a jewellery designer who works in a craft jewellery store in the tourist-heavy barrio of El Borne, has to stop roughly one out of every three tourists that comes through the door. She respectfully but assertively asks them to don their mask. Many are happy to oblige, others somewhat less so.
“I don’t think that’ll be necessary,” said one happy-go-lucky American yesterday, as he sauntered into the store. “I’ve already had both jabs,” he said, with a touch of pride, to which my wife replied, again respectfully but a little more firmly: “I’ll ask you again: please put your mask on. In Spain it is the law. And just because you’ve had the vaccine doesn’t mean you can’t catch it and spread it to others.”
The fact that this is news to many of the shop’s customers is testament to just how poorly informed some vaccinated travellers appear to be. They genuinely seem to believe that the vaccine grants them total protection from contagion. Perhaps this should come as no surprise given the overly simplistic, often confusing messages they are receiving from their respective health authorities. That includes the absurd notion being broadcast by the US government that the current pandemic is exclusively a “pandemic of the unvaccinated”.
Recent weeks have produced more than enough evidence of breakthrough infections to dispel this idea. In early July, Israeli Health Ministry data suggested the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine’s effectiveness in preventing infection had fallen as low as 64%, from over 90% pre-Delta. By this week that number had apparently nosedived to 39%. Two possible reasons cited for this are that delta is better than previous variants at evading the vaccine’s immune protection and the rapidly diminishing effectiveness of the vaccine over time. There’s also, of course, another possible explanation: the manufacturers over-egged the vaccine’s effectiveness.
Shifting Goal Posts
The good news, health authorities now tell us as they shift the goal posts once again, is that most cases in vaccinated people tend to be mild and that vaccines still provide strong protection against severe infection, even against the known variants. As the cases rise, they say, hospitalisations and deaths rise at nowhere near the same rate they did in previous waves. And so far, this appears to hold true. According to real-world data from Public Health England, two shots of the Oxford/AstraZeneca or of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine provide 92% and 96% protection, respectively, against hospital admission.
Nonetheless, hospital admissions are surging in the UK, one of Europe’s most vaccinated countries, though occupancy is still much lower than it was in winter. Sir Patrick Vallance, the UK’s chief scientific adviser, announced this week in a press conference that 60% of the people admitted to hospital with COVID had received two shots of a coronavirus vaccine. He then proceeded to correct himself hours later on Twitter, saying that he had got his numbers mixed up: the 60% figure apparently related to unvaccinated, not vaccinated, people. All said and done, it was hardly a confidence inspiring performance.
Concerns are rising in other places that vaccines may not provide as much protection as previously thought. New data, again out of Israel, suggest that the effectiveness of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine in preventing serious COVID-19 infection among the elderly has fallen to 50%, which stands in stark contrast to the data from Public Health England.
“It’s a warning that should not be ignored,” says Dr. Amit Huppert of the bio-statistical unit of the national research body for epidemiology, the Gertner Institute, which conducted the research. “Most of us did not believe a month ago we could be in this situation.”
But some prominent experts are saying the data shouldn’t be taken seriously, reports the Times of Israel:
As the numbers ignite concern among Israelis, even the government’s top expert adviser on coronavirus questioned their integrity. The approach taken could result in a “horribly skewed” outcome, argued Prof. Ran Balicer, chairman of Israel’s national expert panel on COVID-19.
“Any attempt to deduce severe illness vaccine effectiveness from semi-crude illness rates among the yes or no vaccinated is very, very risky,” he maintained.
Infectious diseases doctor Yael Paran told The Times of Israel that she can’t reconcile the figures on serious illness with the much more rosy reality she sees. “What we see in our hospital and around the world don’t support this,” she said. “I think the figures are exaggerated.”
Huppert acknowledged that the statistics have their limitations. “These are early estimations based on small numbers, and there are all kinds of biases in the numbers,” he said. But he insisted that despite the caveats, they still have great relevance.
That relevance could extend to Europe’s tourism industry. If, as Huppert’s study suggests, the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine does not protect people from severe infection as much as originally claimed, and if that is also true of other vaccines, while of course unvaccinated travelers are also at risk, we could even begin to see infected tourists being admitted to hospitals. And that would put even greater strain on the health systems in Europe’s tourism hotspots.
A New Wave of Cancellations
That is the worst-case scenario. But even now, things are not looking good for Europe’s all-essential tourism industry, which before Covid struck provided roughly 10% of GDP in France, 13% in Italy and Spain, almost 15% in Portugal and 20% in Greece. A little over three weeks ago, in my article Tourism Begins to Recover in Europe, But Is It Just a Dead Cat Bounce? (apologies to cat owners and lovers alike), I warned that the reopening of Europe’s tourism industry may prove to be short lived. That, unfortunately, is looking more and more likely.
Travel restrictions are quickly multiplying. France and Germany are already cautioning their citizens against travelling to Spain and Portugal. Today (Friday July 23) Germany is expected to place Spain on its list of high-risk countries, together with the Netherlands. That would mean that only double-jabbed travellers will be able to visit the countries without having to quarantine on their return to Germany and could be hugely damaging to tourism businesses in Mallorca, where Germans represent 40% of overseas visitors.
Spain’s tourism industry is already warning of a fresh wave of cancellations. The recent surge in new Covid-19 cases in Catalonia is taking its toll on tourist rentals, as more and more people get cold feet. The situation is likely to get even worse in coming days after the European Union recommended against travelling to Catalonia earlier this week. Europe’s biggest tour operator TUI has also announced plans to cancel holidays to hotspots including Bulgaria, Craotia, Italy, Spain and Turkey as uncertainty remains over international travel during the pandemic.
If there’s any silver lining for Europe’s tourism industry, it is that British sun seekers are returning to the mainland after a year-and-a-half absence. And they’ve got money to spend. With the school year ending, tour operators and airlines are bracing for the busiest weekend of the year, reports The Telegraph. But given the UK is itself in the grip of a massive wave of Covid infections after its government helped introduce the Delta variant into Europe, this could end up being more of a curse than a blessing.