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.
The ideal way to end a holiday in Mexico? For me, it’s a tequila sunrise at the airport before a sunset flight home. BA2202 is normally perfectly timed for take-off after a happy-hour cocktail, with the Boeing 777 waiting to fly east into the night at the end of a Latin American adventure.
Not this weekend. British Airways has moved the departure six hours earlier. Passengers on BA2202 who enjoy a pre-flight sharpener will need to down their drinks before lunchtime on Saturday. Those in the window seats will get final glimpses of Mexico’s Mayan Riviera and a scattering of Caribbean islands before night arrives unkindly early. And the next thing they know: it’s 3.05am, and they have just landed in Crawley, Sussex. Tequila sunset, Gatwick sunrise.
That is the cunning plan for the final arrival before the 4am Sunday deadline when Mexico joins the “red list”. British Airways has commendably rearranged its schedules, and added four extra flights, to get everyone home in time. And on Friday afternoon it cut the fare for the remaining seats by a whacking £500 to just £257 one way.
“We have introduced an emergency ‘rescue fare’ dropped to the lowest possible price to cover our costs,” a BA spokesperson told me. Tempted? Please, no dawdling in duty free: an hour’s delay would trigger 11 nights in hotel quarantine for all the passengers.
Sixty minutes later, down at Newhaven on the south coast of Sussex, a boatload of travellers will be in no great hurry to arrive. The DFDS ferry from Dieppe in France is due in at 4am, but I daresay the captain will dawdle en route across the Channel to ensure that by the time passengers step or drive ashore, they are the right side of the rule change.
Such is travel in the age of holiday roulette. The latest round of “traffic light” changes gave travellers 78 hours’ notice of a screeching series of U-turns. Those in Mexico learnt their holidays had gone south and that if they arrived after 4am on Sunday they would be paying for an 11-night stay in a managed quarantine facility.
Fully vaccinated people in France, meanwhile, found that they were soon to be allowed to arrive without going into self-isolation, while Reunion Island – on which ministers pinned the blame for “amber plus” status – will remain quarantine-free until the changeover in the early hours of the morning.
A nimble traveller will book from Reunion on Saturday via the Gulf – and take an overnight flight from the UAE or Qatar onwards to the UK, thereby achieving an amber (but turning red)-red (but turning amber) flip somewhere over the Black Sea.
“We are committed to opening up international travel safely,” said the transport secretary, Grant Shapps, when he announced the changes.
That is the same minister who insisted in April that the UAE was on the red list because of its status as a global aviation hub.
“We are not restricting UAE because of levels of coronavirus in the UAE,” he said. “The specific issue in the UAE is one of transit. It’s because they are a major transit hub.”
The UAE is still a major transit hub, and yet its red list status – which has always seemed excessive – is ending.
Mr Shapps said this week: “I hope people will be able to go away and enjoy their breaks and not be looking over their shoulders the whole time.”
Sadly, as the holidaymakers waving an early goodbye to their Mexican escape will testify, the system the transport secretary has devised does not deliver anticipation and contentedness. It promotes uncertainty and apprehension – wrecking hope and dreams for travellers, and the prospects of what was once the world’s greatest travel industry.
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