The Biden administration has taken the first step towards relaxing coronavirus-related international travel bans, setting up working groups to advise on how to loosen restrictions on arrivals from the UK, EU, Mexico and Canada.
The White House said on Tuesday that it was establishing policy teams of officials from five different parts of the US government to help decide when and how to allow entry to non-citizens from most of Europe, as well as when to reopen land borders with the country’s immediate neighbours.
The restrictions have been in place since the early stages of the pandemic, but have come under fire from foreign governments and the travel industry as case counts have fallen in many countries and vaccination rates have risen.
A White House official said: “Recognising the importance of travel to our citizens and their families, and the critical role trade relationships and our transportation sector play in our economies, the Biden administration is launching a series of expert working groups with four key partners: Canada, Mexico, the European Union and the United Kingdom to determine how best to reopen travel safely.”
The Trump administration imposed a series of travel bans early last year in an unsuccessful effort to prevent the spread of Covid-19 in the US. Under those rules, any non-American who has been in the UK, Ireland, the Schengen area (which includes most EU members as well as Norway, Switzerland and Iceland), China, South Africa, Iran or Brazil in the previous 14 days is not allowed to enter the US.
As one of his final actions in office, Donald Trump dropped those rules, but they were reimposed by Joe Biden almost immediately after he took office. Biden also added India to the list of proscribed countries.
The land borders with Canada and Mexico have also remained closed for anyone undertaking non-essential travel.
The travel rules are some of the last remaining Covid-19-related restrictions in the US, where a rapid vaccination drive has brought case numbers down to about 15,000 a day — a level not seen since March last year.
British officials in particular have pushed for a relaxation of the measures, pointing out their country’s death rate has been lower than that of the US on a per capita basis since February. UK representatives told the Financial Times last week that they were hoping to use this weekend’s G7 summit in Cornwall as an opportunity to press their case.
The global travel industry has also put pressure on the Biden administration to reopen US borders, demands the White House has resisted not least because Americans are still able to travel widely outside the US, albeit while adhering to local quarantine restrictions.
Tuesday’s announcement was the first sign the rules could be relaxed this summer — although such inter-agency groups often take weeks to come up with concrete proposals. The five parts of the government involved in the working groups are the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the state, homeland security, health and transport departments.
Roger Dow, chief executive of the US Travel Association, said: “With decreased infection rates in the US, combined with the administration’s goal of having a critical mass of Americans fully vaccinated by July 4, there is a true near-term opportunity to safely begin to welcome back international visitors.”