With one of the most successful Covid-19 vaccination programs in the world, you can be forgiven for assuming that this would allow the UK to get back to normal faster. About 50% of the adult population is now fully vaccinated and 75% have had a dose. Other countries with high vaccination rates, such as the United States, have begun to offer vaccinated people more freedom to travel or not wear masks. Many other countries grant exemptions for travelers who come in to have shorter quarantine or even come in without any health restrictions.
The United Kingdom seems to be going in a completely different direction altogether, much to the dismay of its floundering travel industry. Last week, the government’s green list message sent shockwaves through both travel companies and consumers. Instead of announcing additions to the green list, as expected, the Minister of Transport, Grant Shapps, removed Portugal from the green list with a little warning. The government had previously said it would provide a “watch list” of countries that may be close to becoming amber to allow travelers to make an informed decision or return home. The Times reported that the Joint Biosecurity Center (JBC) had recommended that the government could safely add some countries to the green list. Still, Health Secretary Matt Hancock overruled this. Now only two countries (Gibraltar and Iceland) on the green list are easily accessible to UK visitors without having to quarantine on return even if you are fully vaccinated.
This week, Matt Hancock has publicly said that the “medium term” abroad was out of the cards because of the desire to protect Britain’s planned full reopening. Mr. Hancock put this decision on the potential risk of new varieties from other countries. This is contrary to most other countries, whose policies now propose to open borders to those who have been vaccinated.
The strengthening of the anti-travel policy can backfire in several ways. First, the UK is facing an increase in Covid-19 cases due to imports of the Delta variant. The government has been criticized for slowly putting India on the red list, which banned all but British citizens and residents from entering Britain from India. With ministers telling people to “holiday in the UK”, this risks exacerbating the spread of the virus from parts of the country where the new variant has taken hold. Despite being a relatively small country, the prices of Covid-19 vary enormously from hotspots like Bolton, where prices are over 320 / 100,000, to quieter tourist areas like Devon to 7.9 / 100,000 rolling 7-day prices. The message of enjoying everything the UK has to offer instead of traveling abroad may risk the variant spreading further. Unlike foreign travel, there is no need for testing to travel around the UK Although there is now some public advice in the primary hotspot to limit travel, it is only valid in a small area and not legally binding.
The confusing message and last-minute changes have also led many travelers to decide to continue their journey to an amber country. Like the boy who cried wolf, passengers who ignore government safety messages could have long-term consequences if trust is lost. With The Times headlining that “ministers ignored scientific advice”, with their recent decisions, the public has begun to question the government’s travel lines. They are desperate to see loved ones abroad after long separations because of Covid.
A key issue is that the yellow list is a mixture of countries in different phases of the fight against the epidemic. The average traveler may not bother to research their destination thoroughly. Malta, which was the most controversial country for not getting on the green list thanks to its average of 7 cases per week and the high vaccination rate, is at one end of the scale. Costa Rica, however, was on the yellow list until this week despite having sky-high cases and variants known to be present. An excellent resource for understanding whether a country is safe or not is Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ travel guidance website which is free from political influence. If a country is on the yellow list and still has a warning from the FCDO, it will be difficult to get travel insurance outside a specialist company such as. Battleface. Britons could be tempted to rely on the Global Health Card, which replaced the previous European version, instead of getting proper insurance.
Finally, vaccines were seen as a way of travel by many younger people. Most countries either offer concessions to the inoculated or are in discussion on the subject. With the prospect of traveling removed, for the time being, the feeling of urgency for some young people to be vaccinated is gone. After all, if the government seems to suggest that those who have been vaccinated are just as much at risk of getting the virus and need to isolate themselves for ten days and have three tests, the vaccine-hesitant question why it is necessary to be vaccinated at all.
The UK government now needs to restart travel in the UK in a safe but risk-balanced way before being left behind by its European and US counterparts. The UK will miss out on billions of pounds from its tourism and travel industries as it is so desperately needed. If it does not happen soon, many of these companies may not be long enough to see the recovery.