UK red list for international travel is inexplicably harsh, claims analyst

‘There doesn’t seem to be anything out there that justifies locking people up in hotels at great expense,’ says Robert Boyle, former BA commercial director

Simon Calder
Travel Correspondent
Friday 03 September 2021 12:53 BST
Danger zone? Copacabana beach in Rio de Janeiro
Danger zone? Copacabana beach in Rio de Janeiro (Simon Calder)

A leading travel industry strategist who has made a forensic analysis of the UK’s “red list” policy is calling for ministers to change the rules.

At present 63 countries, including Turkey, Brazil and South Africa, are on the highest risk register. The government says high Covid rates, the presence of “variants of concern” and lack of genomic surveillance capability are the factors that lead to red listing – for which arrivals must pay £2,285 for 11 nights in hotel quarantine.

But Robert Boyle, former director of strategy for the airline group IAG, says he can see no justification for “locking people up in hotels at great expense”.

Mr Boyle, who was also commercial director for British Airways, has conducted an analysis showing the UK to be a complete outlier among European countries in the draconian restrictions.

The harshest measures used by Germany – which has barely a quarter of the cases of the UK – are equivalent to the “amber list,” though with fewer tests.

Currently, Germany does not apply its toughest restrictions to any country.

“Germany has acknowledged that there aren’t any variants out there that are worse than the Delta variant,” writes Mr Boyle. He notes that changes are made as necessary in Germany when an issue is flagged by medical experts, as opposed to the UK.

“Classifications [in the UK] are changed on an artificial three-weekly cycle, with risk assessments managed and mediated by politicians,” he says.

“If the red list was abolished completely and only amber and green were retained, the UK’s border controls would still be more restrictive than Germany’s are today.”

The analyst take particular issue with the UK’s focus on new variants.

“It could be the case that new variants do emerge which are more worrying than delta. But at the moment, there doesn’t seem to be anything out there that justifies locking people up in hotels at great expense. Especially as any such theoretical new variant could emerge anywhere in the world.

“Many of the biggest mutations occurred in a single immunocompromised individual fighting the virus over a long period.

“Maybe the red list made sense when it was established. But like many Covid policies that were put in place at the height of the crisis, it is looking increasingly like something that should now be dismantled.

“Let’s hope the politicians have the courage to look at the facts, ask themselves whether they really know better than every other country, and admit that it is time for a change of policy.”

The government has dismissed the criticism. A spokesperson for the Department for Transport said: “Our international travel policy is guided by one overwhelming priority – public health.

“We have always been guided by the science, and decisions on our traffic light system are kept under regular review and are informed by the latest risk assessment from the Joint Biosecurity Centre and wider public health factors.”

The next set of “traffic light” changes are due in the week of 13-17 September, probably taking effect early in the following week.

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