Starting tomorrow, the quarantine period for all international arrivals is to be shortened from 14 days to 10, and foreign business travelers would be allowed to apply for entry. The easing of the 14-day mandatory quarantine, which has been in place for more than 700 days since March 19, 2020, marks an important first step in reopening the nation.
However, Taiwan is not yet reopening to international tourists and other nonessential travelers. Last year, many European countries reopened their borders to travelers who are fully vaccinated, while the US reopened its borders to fully vaccinated arrivals in November last year.
Despite global daily COVID-19 case counts reaching a record high in late January — with more than 4 million cases reported in a single day — many countries last month announced plans to reopen or relax border restrictions, including quarantine exemptions for vaccinated people.
Japan, which had imposed a ban on nearly all entries of nonresident foreigners early in the pandemic, reopened to foreign arrivals except tourists on Tuesday, and Australia reopened its border to vaccinated tourists and business travelers on Feb. 21.
While daily COVID-19 infections in Taiwan have fallen from double-digit figures since local outbreaks of the Omicron variant of SARS-CoV-2 were reported in January, the call to further relax border restrictions and reintroduce tourism is growing.
The Tourism Bureau on Wednesday met with 13 travel agent associations that proposed a plan to reopen for business travelers by March, tourists by May and international travel for Taiwanese by July. They also suggested shortening the quarantine time to three days or exempt vaccinated arrivals.
Minister of Health and Welfare Chen Shih-chung (陳時中), who heads the Central Epidemic Command Center, on Thursday said scientific data indicate that reducing mandatory quarantine to 10 days should be safe. Reducing the period to seven days would involve some risk, but a reduction to five days would be very risky, he said, adding that the public must be ready to accept an expected increase in case numbers with a further shortening of quarantine.
Reopening the nation and easing restrictions would undoubtedly lead to a surge in cases, he said. Taiwanese might feel ready for a full reopening, but the government should do so slowly, he said.
Citing the COVID-19 situation in Hong Kong — where daily case numbers have doubled every few days to more than 50,000 per day despite a strict 14-day quarantine rule being in place — Chen warned that local infections could increase rapidly if Taiwan is not careful or reopens too fast.
The government should not attempt to set a schedule for each phase of easing restrictions, as “the pandemic does not listen to our orders,” he said.
As countries reopen to travelers and roll back domestic restrictions, signaling a shift in the COVID-19 response to recovery mode, mandates are likely to be replaced by guidelines and warnings.
Although some people look forward to international travel, living with the virus might not be so simple for immunocompromised or older people with underlying health conditions, leaving them prone to severe complications from COVID-19 infection.
Many Taiwanese fear even mild infections of COVID-19, and are accustomed to using the daily local case count as the sole indicator of their personal safety level while relying on government mandates to feel protected. Reopening means they would need to assess their own risk tolerance and make personal decisions with regard to disease prevention.
Although the pandemic is unpredictable, the government should nonetheless design a phased reopening plan, allowing businesses and people to make preparations, and for the public to develop a stronger psychological tolerance for the virus.
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