WWhether they’re heading to a scorching Mallorca beach or dancing under neon flags at a music festival, millions of people are hoping for a Covid-free summer. But that’s not how it works. With infections on the rise again, how can people ensure they stay safe and keep their holiday plans on track?
How prone am I to getting Covid on a plane or train?
Crowded spaces are ideal for spreading infection, and the dominant Omicron strains BA.4 and BA.5 are reported to evade antibody immunity effectively, spreading about a third faster than previous variants. You might be dismayed when you have to squeeze into your seat on an airplane next to a stranger who keeps clearing his throat.
But airplanes have an unfair reputation as infection reservoirs, experts say, and the actual risk is lower than many indoor environments. With trains and other means of transport, it depends on how busy they are and whether they have modern ventilation systems. “Definitely consider wearing a mask in crowded areas, on public transport and at the airport where there are a lot of people,” said Prof Ben Cowling, an epidemiologist at the University of Hong Kong. “On the plane itself, the ventilation is excellent, so there’s actually less risk in your seat.”
Masks: to wear or not to wear?
Masks might seem like a thing of the past for some in the UK, but that’s not the case in all countries, so check the rules before heading out. Italy, for example, has retained the obligation to wear an FFP2 mask on public transport, with the exception of airplanes. Some airlines have also maintained a mandate.
They may also be motivated by a desire to be a responsible citizen or by self-preservation. In this case, an FFP2 mask, which filters out potentially infectious particles in the air, is better than a cloth or disposable paper mask. “If you’re concerned, I would strongly advise a mask,” said Dr. Stephen Griffin, Associate Professor at the University of Leeds. “It’s been turned into this sign of freedom, but it’s reasonable and not a huge expense. It’s child’s play. Why spoil your holiday feeling?”
festivals and clubbing
Festivals are back this summer, from Primavera in Spain to Tomorrowland, the world’s largest dance music festival, in the Belgian town of Boom. Do these huge gatherings lead to outbreaks? Anecdotally, many people reported testing positive for Covid after Glastonbury, but then 200,000 people attended and around one in 30 people in England had Covid last week. It’s hard to tell if events like this have a major impact on the totals at this point.
When trying to assess your own risk, common sense applies: indoor, crowded places make transmission more likely. This scenario might be relevant at a festival or nightclub, but also for high-profile holiday activities like an afternoon in a stuffy museum or crowded art gallery, or exploring the vaults of a medieval church.
“The only time I’ve been abroad recently was for a microbiology conference in Northern Ireland where I got Covid,” Griffin said. “I had taken all the precautions for the conference to be Covid-safe but came back with Covid. I’m pretty sure I caught it in a restaurant.”
And what about outside – on the beach or at the campsite?
Outdoor spaces are generally low-risk and people tend to have fewer social contacts while on vacation. “Often people are with their families and don’t typically socialize a lot outside of their home as they are off work and school,” said Prof John Edmunds of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine. “Actually, vacation is not a particularly high risk. There are exceptions – going to clubs and bars – but I don’t want to stop people from having fun.”
Should I do a Covid test before I fly?
Check the rules for your goal again. In many places in Europe, you no longer have to anxiously arrive at check-in with a wad of paperwork, but testing requirements have not resolved across the board. Travelers from the UK must have a vaccination certificate or a negative result of a PCR test carried out within 72 hours or an antigen test carried out within 48 hours before departure. Spain and Portugal have similar requirements. Outside of Europe there is a spectrum of severity.
Beyond the rules, should travelers feel morally obligated to take a test? Edmunds says he doesn’t want to “tell people what to do,” but notes that an established rule of medical screening is that there’s no point in taking a test if you don’t if you get a positive result acts.
“If someone tests themselves, finds out they’re positive and they go anyway, what’s the point?” he said. “Ideally, if you are certain that you shouldn’t get on a plane or public transport, you are putting other people at risk.”
At a time when many are financially strapped, canceling a flight is painful. However, some airlines still have specific refund rules if a flight has to be changed due to Covid, offering more flexibility in changing flights than before the pandemic.
Do I have to show a vaccination certificate?
In some countries, including the US, vaccination is an absolute requirement. For other destinations, no vaccine testing means. For anyone who’s eligible for a booster shot, or for children who haven’t had their first dose yet, this might be a particularly good time to catch up. “We know that booster doses offer that extra protection against serious illness, but for a few months the dose also offers relatively good protection against infection,” Cowling said. “It’s time to get the jab if you’re due for one.”
Do I have to self-isolate if I get infected abroad?
Some countries, like the UK, now have minimum statutory isolation requirements. But France and Italy, for example, still mandate seven-day isolation after a positive test. At the extreme end, some countries require hotel or hospital quarantine. “One of my graduate students ended up spending 18 days in an isolation room at a hospital in Shanghai while traveling to visit family,” Cowling said. “It could be a different kind of vacation than you planned if you spend it in an isolation room.”
Where will Covid rates be highest and lowest?
Coronavirus cases have risen sharply in recent weeks, with the latest figures showing around 2.3 million across the UK last week. But at this point, with high overall prevalence and many countries tapering surveillance, it’s difficult to say with any degree of certainty which countries will be the hotspots two months from now. “It’s difficult enough to predict what’s going to happen in the UK and we have better data than anywhere else,” Edmunds said. “I don’t think that’s possible with any degree of accuracy.”