The travel correspondent of The Independent is rarely sighted away from the fabled city of Samarkand, where he keeps his stable of thoroughbred racing camels.
But he switched his attention from the mosques, minarets and dromedaries of the Silk Road hub for an hour to answer your pressing travel issues live.
This is the compilation of the key questions and answers.
Q: Looking to rearrange a visit to family in France for fifth time, coming back on 24 August. Is it likely the UK government will have stopped the ludicrous self isolation rule by then?
A: Late last Friday, UK ministers put arrivals from France into a new, mandatory quarantine category swiftly named “amber plus”. A government spokesperson told me: “The Joint Biosecurity Centre has assessed that France is a high-risk Covid-19 destination due to the circulation of variants of concern, most notably the Beta variant, which presents the greatest risk for UK vaccine escape.”
Analysts, though, say they cannot detect any compelling evidence for the move. The hope in the travel industry is that the government will quietly backpedal on moving France to amber plus at the earliest opportunity, which is expected to be early August. But I really wouldn't be booking anything for late August until shortly before departure.
Q: Is there any chance Corsica will be considered separately, rather than under the umbrella of France? I gather there are very few cases there.
A: As Jean-Paul Sartre may once have said: “Tout est possible. Mais rien n'est prévisible” (Anything is possible. But nothing is predictable.)
Q: It’s good news about being able to travel from the UK to France without a test if fully vaccinated. Do you think there could be a U-turn though from the French government, following the UK's decision to put France under this amber plus category?
A: No, I imagine the French government considers data and evidence rather than retaliation.
Q: I'm off to France tomorrow. Because the country was placed on the “amber plus” list last Friday, I will then travel on to Malta to enjoy 10 days of sun and fun in a green-list nation. But what are the changes of Malta suddenly going from green to amber, amber plus or even worse red? And what travel highlights can you offer me to see in Malta?
A: Laundering your “amber plus” status from France sounds a very good idea. It is ludicrous that you should have to, because all the information I have seen suggests that creating a completely new category for our second-favourite country, requiring self-isolation even for travellers fully vaccinated by the NHS, was an arbitrary and flawed decision. I understand that the Department for Transport is privately furious with the Department of Health for coming up with this novel notion at 8pm on a Friday night.
Anyway, we are where we are – or at least you are where you are. As has been shown over the past 16 months, many government decisions on international travel do not appear to be rooted in rationality, so nothing can be ruled out. Malta is seeing a rise in infections and could be a candidate for downgrading in early August – but that would probably not take effect until around 9 August, by which stage you will be free of your amber plus contamination. In any event if you have been double jabbed in the UK and Malta goes amber, you will not need to quarantine on return home.
Meanwhile you have much to enjoy during your Mediterranean island visit. Every wave of civilisation has left its mark on the Maltese islands, creating a mosaic of cultures and colours.
Spend at least 48 hours exploring Valletta, the fabulous capital. Make sure you cross the Grand Harbour to Cospicua, between Vittoriosa and Senglea – together comprising the atmospheric Three Cities. Malta is an open-air society, and its liveliest outdoor market is Marsaxlokk, in the southeast of the island. Inland, Mdina is a beautiful and tranquil walled city.
The neighbouring island of Gozo is well worth visiting; the ferry from the north of Malta takes around an hour.
Close to the ferry port of Mgarr on Gozo, the amazing Ggantija temple complex is the oldest free-standing monumental building in Europe – and a Unesco World Heritage Site.
Q: Apparently MPs were told today that Brits vaccinated abroad will be able to get their vaccination approved by the NHS after consultation with their NHS GP. Only one issue – Brits that live abroad don’t have a NHS GP. So, realistically this isn’t really going to help is it?
A: This is absolutely baffling. The vaccines minister, Nadhim Zahawi, said: “By the end of this month, UK nationals who have been vaccinated overseas will be able to talk to their GP, go through what vaccine they have had, and have it registered with the NHS that they have been vaccinated.
“The reason for the conversation with the GP is to make sure that whatever vaccine they have had is approved in the United Kingdom.
“Because we are working at speed, at the moment it is UK nationals and citizens who have had UK vaccinations who will be able to travel to amber list countries other than France and come back and not quarantine. We want to offer the same reciprocity as the 33 countries that recognise our app, and that will also happen very soon.”
In theory someone who divides their time in the UK and another country may qualify, but most expatriates do not. Even then I don't imagine that a GP is going to be delighted by finding a queue of people outside their surgery waiting to have their foreign vaccinations certified. The UK is the only country I know of that insists only British jabs will do.
It is mystifying why a doctor is needed to discuss with a patient what vaccine they have had.
Dozens of other countries already recognise NHS vaccines and there is no clear reason why the UK should not reciprocate. I am afraid this falls into the increasingly large category of nonsensical statements from government ministers.
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Traffic light changes
Q: We are flying to Crete this Sunday. Currently there is no testing requirement for double-jabbed arrivals to Greece (which we all are), however I have read/heard that UK arrivals are being either totally or randomly selected for lateral flow tests on arrival. Is this true? If so, surely it would make more sense to simply ask for negative tests from all visitors before they leave their home country? And chances of Greek Islands going 'Amber Plus' or Red please?
A: Greece has always been testing people on a targeted or random basis on arrival in Greece, and you would need to ask the ambassador in London why they don't extend this to every passenger.
It is difficult to envisage circumstances in which Greece would be placed on the red list, but absolutely nothing can be ruled out.
There has been a lot of talk about other countries joining the amber plus list, including Greece, but I see no evidence for this.
Q: Flying into Cyprus to catch a cruise around Greece. If for whatever reason Greece goes into red do we follow Greece or Cyprus protocol when flying back into UK from Cyprus.
Also how close is Cyprus in going into red category?
A: I am not sure why you would imagine that Greece would go onto the red list? Infection rates are still much lower than in the UK. Interestingly, the only European country that has worse coronavirus numbers than the UK is Cyprus.
In the hypothetical case that one did go red: the test is, have you been in a red list country in the past ten days (today not included)?
Q: What’s the likelihood of Peru being moved to amber? Their cases seem to be very low. I have a tour booked for Machu Picchu?
A: I have to try to manage your expectations. Even assuming that Peru is among the first South American countries to be moved to the amber list – meaning that anybody fully vaccinated by the NHS does not need to quarantine – local restrictions may make your planned trip unfeasible. I am looking only at European destinations for the rest of this year.
Q: What do you think about Turkey moving to amber plus or amber on the next review? And also the government are talking about a review on 31 July. Is this correct?
A: I am afraid I am not seeing the kind of sustained decline in Turkey’s infection rates to be able to predict a change of category from the highest risk red list.
The government is talking about a review on 31 July of the whole traffic light system, not the semi-regular updates of categories.
The Global Travel Taskforce report promises: “The UK government will hold three “checkpoints” to review measures, taking account of the emerging evidence and domestic and international health picture. This could include, for example, considerations around the self-isolation, the Managed Quarantine Service, 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, both for people, families and businesses, and for the wider transport and tourism industry.”
Didn't happen on 28 June, as far as I am aware, so I'm not keeping 31 July free in my diary.
Q: Do you have any idea when Qatar will be moved from the red list? Infection rates are low and a good vaccination programme.
A: Infection rates, progress of the vaccine rollout and absence of variance of concern are irrelevant in this case, according to the transport secretary, Grant Shapps. Doha is a global hub, with all sorts of people flying in from all over the place.
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Q: We have booked a holiday to Madeira on the green list, but we are unsure exactly what tests we need, I have asked a few of the testing providers who all give different answers.
We have two children, aged 12 and 14, so they will need a negative test to get into Madeira. All four of us will need the day-two test when we get back. These are the six tests we know we need, and then this is where the advice fluctuates:
My wife and I are double vaccinated, do we need a negative PCR test to enter Madeira or just the NHS passport?
Do the children need a PCR test to leave Madeira and enter the UK?
Do we all need a PCR test to enter the UK?
Do none of us need a PCR test to enter the UK?
A: While it is extremely disconcerting that test providers give conflicting answers to questions, ultimately it is the traveller’s responsibility to to get the right tests.
“My wife and I are double vaccinated, do we need a negative PCR test to enter Madeira or just the NHS passport?” An NHS Covid letter or App should be fine; unlike mainland Portugal, there is no need for fully vaccinated visitors to test,
“Do the children need a PCR test to leave Madeira and enter the UK?” No, nobody does to travel from anywhere to the UK. A cheap and fast lateral-flow test will do.
“Do we all need a PCR test to enter the UK?” No. But you must have pre-booked a day two PCR test for after you return.
Q: Is an antigen test sufficient to travel from Barcelona to the UK, or do I need a PCR test? Thank you!
A: Yes, quick, cheap lateral flow/antigen tests are just fine. So much time, money and stress has been wasted on people getting PCR tests before travel to the UK.
Q: When I visit the UK from Germany, do I have to follow the 'fit to fly' procedure like all other UK residents before my return flight? or do I only follow the entry rules for the country i'm flying back to?
A: If you are flying Berlin-UK on Sunday you must have a certified (in Spanish, French or English) negative result from a lateral flow or PCR test (the former will be much easier). It must be taken on the Thursday, Friday, Saturday or Sunday.
A reminder that fully vaccinated travellers of any nationality need not test before flying from the UK to Germany.
Q: Do you think a UK-USA travel corridor is further away than ever following this week’s decision by the US to upgrade the UK risk level? What is your view and understanding re the ongoing talks on this issue and what is your best guesstimate of when we are likely to be able to travel to the US?
A: This week the Centers for Disease Control placed the UK on the very highest risk list, making it increasingly unlikely that travel for British people direct to the US will happen any time soon.
It is a heartbreaking situation for people with family or loved ones in the US, but the Americans are in no hurry to welcome Brits back. They do not rely upon tourism from international visitors nearly as much as European countries do, and see little advantage in opening up to the UK. The government here could make life easier by allowing US vaccinations to be recognised on arrival in the UK, thereby allowing jabbed Americans to enter without quarantine.
Q: Our flight in late August to the US has been cancelled by BA. I'm guessing this must mean Biden is unwilling to lift restrictions until at least September 2021. Have you any thoughts?
A: British Airways and Virgin Atlantic are cancelling very large numbers of transatlantic flights through to the end of August, because they see no prospect of the presidential proclamation against arrivals from the UK being lifted before then. I cannot see any urgency at the White House for letting us in, I'm afraid. Foreign tourism, particularly from the UK, is only a tiny proportion of the US economy. We need them more than they need us.
Q: Any word on when Italy will let us know if the 5 day quarantine requirement will expire on July 30th or extended beyond then?
A: Like many countries, Italy is watching Covid infection rates in the UK with alarm. Since 21 June, anyone arriving in Italy who has been in the UK in the previous two weeks must present a test taken in the 48 hours preceding entry. This can be a cheap and swift lateral flow test, but must be privately obtained; you cannot use an NHS test.
The arrival must also self-isolate for five days, at the end of which they take another test and leave quarantine if it is negative. (Children under six need not test but must self-isolate.)
The rule is due to expire, as you say, on 30 July, but of course it could be extended. Typically Italy make changes around three days in advance, so you will not know what its policy will be for UK arrivals from 31 July for a week or so.
Foreign Office advice
Q: When will the Foreign Office advice about only essential travel to Canada change?
A: “Based on the current assessment of Covid-19 risks,” the Foreign Office currently advises against all but essential travel to Canada. That has the effect of invalidating standard travel insurance policies.
The assertion by the Foreign Office is – how can I put it? – curious given that current coronavirus infection rates in the UK are 65 times higher than in Canada.
I asked why British people are being warned against travelling to Canada. I was assured that all decisions are made on the best available evidence.
A cynical person might venture that the Foreign Office's once-excellent reputation for advice to British travellers is being trashed by political considerations. But why don’t you ask your MP?
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