Traffic-light roulette has now been replaced by a slightly simpler game when it comes to travel – red list bingo.
As of 4 October, the UK’s green, amber and red categories are now streamlined to just two lists: red and Rest of World, or ROW.
Fully vaccinated travellers arriving from countries on the latter no longer have to take a pre-departure test before returning to the UK, though they must still take a day two PCR test afterwards (a move that’s set to be eased further in late October).
Unvaccinated arrivals must continue to take the pre-departure test, and have zero quarantine-free options; they must self-isolate for 10 days upon entering the UK from all ROW countries.
Meanwhile, it’s business as usual for the red list, from where all passengers must pay thousands of pounds for a 10-day stint in a government-mandated quarantine hotel.
The 54-strong red list will continue to be updated every three weeks, with the next reshuffle expected on or around 7 October.
Expectations are high that South Africa could finally make the leap from red to ROW after the British High Commission in Pretoria tweeted a statement made jointly by UK diplomats and the South African government that said recent findings “will feed into the next review of UK border measures”.
But what about the other contenders that could potentially get an upgrade in the next announcement?
Covid data guru Tim White believes we might see “wholesale movement” in the red list this time around, after many were disappointed at the dearth of countries promoted to amber at the last update.
“My information is that the cabinet was reluctant to appear to be too soft by allowing a whole host of countries off the red list when cases were still rising in the UK,” he tells The Independent.
“The main criteria now in keeping (or adding) countries on the red list is the risk of variants of coronavirus; case numbers should not really coming in to the equation unless there is an extremely high infection rate. So in effect I hope the Joint Biosecurity team has started with a blank sheet and only added those countries with variants.”
White is “not positive” about Thailand’s chances of shaking off its red list status, as cases of the Beta variant are still being detected over there.
The Dominican Republic may suffer the same fate, as White says the government has been “conservative on this issue [variants of concern] from the start, to the point of folly” (remember when France went amber plus because of Beta cases in the island of Reunion?).
However, he thinks there should be plenty to celebrate at the next announcement, especially for those with family in South America.
“Argentina, Chile, Peru and Uruguay should all come off red next week,” he says. “The fate of the other countries on the continent is less certain. Brazil still has some 'Gamma' variant, while the latest variant of interest 'Mu' is also gaining some ground and could rule out Colombia where it was first spotted.”
Further north, White believes Mexico has a strong shot at being bumped up to the ROW list, along with Indonesia and South Africa.
“One problem countries will have is proving they don't have variants of concern,” adds White. “If they are not carrying out, and sharing, genomic sequencing data, there is no way of knowing which strains of the virus are circulating.
“Nonetheless I think Georgia, and Europe's only current red list country, Montenegro, have a fairly good chance of moving out of the 'red zone'.”
Analyst Donal Kane believes that, in addition to South Africa, “some neighbouring countries like Namibia with very similar positions” will also lose red status.
He tells The Independent that the Asian countries on the red list are also “all good candidates to be removed next week”, including Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines and Nepal.
However, Kane is less optimistic than White about how South America will fare: “On case rates alone it looks pretty strange to have Chile (similar case rates to NZ) or Brazil (like Australia) on any red list. I expect the 'variant card' will be played here though and South America or Caribbean countries are less likely to escape next time despite low rates (and likely prominence of the Delta variant anyway).”
Kane strongly believes, like various other travel experts and analysts, that the entire red list should be abolished in the UK, mirroring Ireland’s move to axe hotel quarantine.
“It's clear that the red list as a concept needs to go and go soon; the UK is completely out of line in Europe with the harsh restrictions that it’s imposing on arrivals from these countries,” he says.
“Whether the red list ever served any significant public health benefit in the past can be debated, but the logic for its continued existence is now non-existent. In my view it should be entirely scrapped before further hardship is inflicted on those needing or wishing to travel from those countries and before further damage is done to the UK's reputation.”
Simon Calder, travel correspondent of The Independent, agreed, saying: “After Ireland closed its red list – and its quarantine hotels – at the weekend, the UK red list is looking increasingly hard to justify.
“I imagine the Foreign Office, and British diplomats from Addis Ababa to Santiago, are having to field dozens of calls each day from furious governments who want to know the grounds for continuing with an effective travel ban on their nations.
“The Joint Biosecurity Centre, and its parent ministry the Department of Health, are under increasing pressure to show their working. Barring some hitherto hidden data on alarming Covid variants, I predict that ‘new information’ will allow ministers to cull half the countries from the red list – with a good few Latin American and African nations moved out of the danger zone.”
His predictions for the coming update? “The Dominican Republic, Chile and most of Africa has a good case for moving to the ROW list next Wednesday, Thursday or Friday.”
Some reports have circulated from unnamed Whitehall sources that the red list will shrink dramatically.
“We are expecting sharp reductions in the red list. It could be as few as nine countries left on the list,” one told The Sunday Telegraph.
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