By the end of July, the UK government is committed to review its measures on international travel.
The first “checkpoint” required by the Global Travel Taskforce, due in late June, was lost in the moves surrounding “traffic light” changes.
But the second, which The Independent is calling Checkpoint Bravo, will happen ahead of the next set of moves between green, amber, red and other categories for international arrivals.
The checkpoint provides an ideal opportunity for the Department for Transport (DfT) and the rest of the government to address the most incoherent, irrational and damaging aspects of current government policy, and alleviate the consequent harm caused to travellers and the economy.
What is due to happen?
The second Global Travel Taskforce report, published in April, was supposed to a provide “a clear view to progressing from where we are now to a future where travel is less restricted,” in the words of the transport secretary, Grant Shapps.
At the time a 19-week ban on international travel was in force. It ended on 17 May but has been replaced by a tangle of rules and guidance that has become more complex, not less.
According to the report, Checkpoint Bravo will “review measures, taking account of the emerging evidence and domestic and international health picture”.
Examples given are “self-isolation, the Managed Quarantine Service [hotel quarantine], and options at which differing measures or restrictions may apply for those with proof of vaccination.
“The checkpoints will also consider the efficacy of measures in progressing to a safe, sustainable and robust international travel system in the longer term,” the report says.
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Top of the list: recognise foreign vaccinations
Assuming the government is keen to address the most damaging of its current rules, the refusal to accept vaccines administered abroad as an alternative to quarantine is the single most harmful – to both individuals and the travel industry – and has no obvious benefits beyond suppressing the demand for travel.
At present travellers to the UK who have been fully vaccinated by the NHS are able to avoid self-isolation at home after arrival from “amber list” countries – which number over 150, including Spain, Italy, Greece and the United States.
All other nations that allow travellers with internationally recognised vaccinations to avoid testing or quarantine regulations accept those administered abroad, on production of acceptable evidence.
But the British government currently refuses to recognise any jabs other than those administered by the NHS. It is particularly inexplicable for people vaccinated in the European Union, whose EU digital Covid pass is the first successful and secure large-scale international certification system.
The policy of refusing flexibility to people “not jabbed here” amounts to an effective ban on travellers from abroad, damaging inbound tourism still further and harming the prospects of airlines, ferry firms and train operators who cannot earn revenue from the prospective visitors who are being turned away.
On an individual level, the ban is keeping families separated from loved ones.
While British expatriates have been promised a scheme by the end of the month to allow jabs abroad to be recognised, the vaccines minister, Nadhim Zahawi, said it is contingent on UK residents abroad talking to their GPs at home.
British expatriates do not have GPs at home. The Independent has asked for clarification on this aspect of the policy.
“Amber plus” – and France’s place on it.
The “traffic light” scheme was originally intended to have three categories: red for high-risk countries, amber for moderate-risk countries and green for low-risk countries.
Red requires hotel quarantine for all incoming travellers, while at the other end arrivals from green list nations need not self-isolate.
Arrivals from amber list countries who have been fully vaccinated by the NHS avoid quarantine, too.
Ireland has always been on a separate, “super green” category with no quarantine or testing required from the republic to the UK.
There is also a “green watchlist,” a branch of the low-risk register supposed to indicate nations that could soon be switched to amber. But this notion was ignored very quickly, with Portugal – the only major destination on the original green list – switched abruptly to amber without a mention of “green watchlist”.
Then, late on the evening of 16 July, travellers heading across the Channel (or already located there) were given the shock news that a sixth category, dubbed amber plus, had been invented for France. Unlike from every other amber country, British people must self-isolate regardless of their vaccination status.
France has extremely close family ties with the UK. Many British people have property there. And incoming business and leisure travellers from France are extremely important economically.
The reason stated by the government – fears about the Beta variant – do not stand up to scrutiny. The French embassy in London tweeted: “The Beta variant is still on the decline and now accounts for 2.3 per cent of new cases, and under 2 per cent in continental France.”
Travellers, the French government and the wider industry are calling for an immediate U-turn by UK ministers before more harm is done.
The most significant change here is likely to be to the cost of the “managed quarantine” service. Currently the first adult pays £1,750 for 11 nights in a quarantine hotel, including three meals a day, security and two post-arrival tests. A second adult sharing the same room pays a further £650.
The government is believed to be losing money on the current arrangements, and therefore is rumoured to be considering raising the basic price by £500.
Spell out the length of red list status
At present the UAE, Qatar and Turkey are on the highest risk register, meaning hotel quarantine for all arrivals.
Each country has strong links with the UK and hundreds of thousands of people are affected by the red list status.
The transport secretary, Grant Shapps, says: “The specific issue in the UAE is one of transit. It’s because they are a major transit hub.” The same presumably applies to Qatar and Turkey – whose main airport at Istanbul is now by far the busiest in Europe.
Their global hub status is not going to change, and there appears little chance of their being ”un-red-listed“ any time soon.
Many travellers from those countries are laundering their status for 10 days in Malta, Bulgaria or Ireland. But it would help people, and the travel industry, to understand what conditions will need to be met before they are removed from the highest risk category.
Foreign Office advice
FCDO guidance is supposed to decide whether or not package holiday firms can operate trips, and the validity of standard travel insurance policies. If the Foreign Office warns against non-essential travel, organised holidays cannot go ahead and insurance is invalidated.
Increasingly the official advice is regarded with derision rather than respect. For example, six weeks ahead of Canada’s planned reopening to fully vaccinated travellers on 7 September, the FCDO warns against all but essential travel to the world’s second-largest country due to “the current assessment of Covid-19 risks”.
According to Our World in Data, the UK’s rate of new coronavirus infections relative to population yesterday was 50 times higher than Canada’s.
Many in the travel industry are calling for an alignment between “traffic light” ratings and Foreign Office advice.
The Independent does not recognise such a need, because the two issues are different: the DfT’s traffic light ratings are entirely to do with the perceived risk to public health in the UK, while the FCDO is supposed to measure the overall dangers to individual travellers. But pretending British people would be more at risk from Covid in Canada than in the UK is plainly ridiculous.
Cruises abroad have been banned by the UK government for over a year. The Foreign Office says the medical advice from Public Health England makes cruising too dangerous “due to the ongoing pandemic”.
In the Global Travel Taskforce report, the government pledged to “restart international cruises alongside the wider restart of international travel, in line with the “traffic light” system”.
This did not happen, but evidence from the restart of domestic cruises indicates that the main problem is sudden changes of mind by governments. It is difficult to identify any fundamental objection to the resumption of international cruising.
Opening up to America
In the days when the UK had a significant inbound tourism industry and intercontinental aviation industry, the US was by far the most important market.
Joe Biden has made it clear he is in no rush to remove the presidential proclamation that bans non-Americans who have been, in the past 14 days, in the UK (and the rest of Europe).
But recognising US-administered vaccines or, even better, placing some or all of the United States on the green list would at least make life easier for Americans and would benefit the UK economy.
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