Simon Calder, also known as The Man Who Pays His Way, has been writing about travel for The Independent since 1994. In his weekly opinion column, he explores a key travel issue – and what it means for you.
Mistakes? I’ve made a million. My capacity for foul-ups, particularly in the field of travel, knows few bounds. Just ask the receptionist at the Station Hotel in Dumfries, where earlier this month I turned up triumphantly waving a room reservation for the full-to-capacity property.
She politely explained I had managed to book for the following night, and directed me to the nearby Cairndale Hotel – which fortunately still had room at the inn.
A cunning plan to travel to Normandy on 17 July also proved beyond my powers of prediction. I had reckoned without the overnight invention of a new quarantine “traffic light” category, amber plus, into which France would unceremoniously be dumped.
Planned reunions – whether with the staff at the legendary seafood restaurant A La Marmite Dieppoise and then the road to Rouen, or rather more importantly of families separated for many months by Covid – were scuppered by the stroke of a government pen.
France, unlike every other European Union country, presents too much of a threat to public health in the UK. Never mind that at the time our new infection rates were seven times higher than those of the French, prompting France’s Europe minister, Clément Beaune, to protest: “The UK’s quarantine measures for France are excessive and incomprehensible in health terms.”
His mistake, and mine, was to fail to pay due heed to French Indian Ocean island of Réunion. France’s amber plus status was decided, the foreign secretary revealed, because of “the prevalence of the so-called Beta variant, in particular in the Réunion bit of France”.
The fact that the island is 5,800 miles from Paris is irrelevant, Dominic Raab insists.
“It’s not the distance that matters, it’s the ease of travel between different component parts of any individual country.”
Following that logic, the beautiful Portuguese island of Madeira is surely in line to be struck off the UK government’s green list. On Saturday, a dozen flights each way are set to connect the mainland cities of Lisbon and Porto with Madeira. And any hopes that some Greek islands might make the quarantine-free category when the transport secretary, Grant Shapps, reveals the next round of holiday roulette next week, are surely dashed.
Or are they?
The sense is growing that ministers are not merely making up travel policy as they go along, with arbitrary decisions that cause grief for millions taken on the hoof late on a Friday night – they then subsequently fumble around for evidence to justify their over-hasty actions.
This week Mary Gregory, deputy director for regulation at the Office for National StatIstics, publicly admonished Johanna Hutchinson, head of data and data science at the Joint Biosecurity Centre, about the numbers supporting the French decision. “We do not consider that they were easy to find or clear,” she wrote.
She reminded the body that makes recommendations to ministers: “It is our expectation that statistics and data which support decisions should be made available in an accessible form alongside, or as soon as possible after, any statement.”
Behind the statistical squabbles, the emotions of millions of people are being torn apart by arbitrary decisions that sometimes have no basis in reality.
With mainland France off the agenda because – we now know – of high levels of the Beta variant on the French island of Réunion, I recommend a location from which those of us lucky enough to have been fully vaccinated can return without the need to quarantine.
Listed prettily on the amber register between Portugal and Romania is the French island of Réunion. You can even launder your French “amber plus” status there: just fly from Paris to the isle, stretch out in a hammock for 10 days and fly back via Mauritius, to avoid mainland France.
Yes, the location blamed for requiring tighter restrictions for France is now a quarantine laundrette.
With much experience to call upon, I commend the practice of admitting an error graciously and putting it right.
*** Over the past three years, I dare say the wonderful Cathy Adams – The Independent’s outgoing head of travel, in both senses – may have made the odd mistake, but I am darned if I can remember one. For three largely chaotic years (not her fault!) Cathy has written, edited, commissioned and inspired us.
Cathy is moving toThe Times, where her new colleagues will quickly realise how lucky they are. I shall always relish my good fortune in working with one of the greats, and look forward to our next reunion.
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