New travel changes: What are they, and what are the effects?

Travellers regarded by the UK as fully vaccinated – which includes under-18s who live here – will encounter less red tape and expense

Simon Calder
Travel Correspondent
Sunday 10 October 2021 20:32
England simplifies 'traffic light' pandemic rules for international travel

The UK’s complex rules for international travellers have changed significantly during October. Here are the key questions and answers.

What is happening?

A new regime of regulations, all about “the jabbed and the jabbed-nots,” came into effect on 4 October.

The transport secretary, Grant Shapps, said: “We are accelerating towards a future where travel continues to reopen safely and remains open for good, and today’s rule changes are good news for families, businesses and the travel sector.

“Our priority remains to protect public health but, with more than eight in 10 people now fully vaccinated, we are able to take these steps to lower the cost of testing and help the sector to continue in its recovery.”

For travellers treated as fully vaccinated, the testing regime for arrivals to all four UK nations has become easier – with the “test to fly” dropped. The same applies for under-18s arriving from 92 countries whose vaccinations are recognised by the UK.

But for travellers regarded as unvaccinated (including non-British under-18s arriving from unrecognised nations), the changes are either neutral or negative.

Do we still have traffic lights?

Officially, no: the UK’s “traffic light” system that has applied since May 2021 has been ditched. But in practice a red/amber/green scheme is in place.

All the countries on the former “green list” have moved to the “amber list,” to the potential disadvantage of unvaccinated travellers. They can no longer return from nations such as Croatia and Germany without quarantine.

Ireland remains in a class of its own, a single-nation green list.

The line-up is:

  • Red: seven countries, including Colombia, Peru and the Dominican Republic, from which hotel quarantine is obligatory for all arrivals.
  • Amber: almost everywhere else. The government calls this “rest of the world”.
  • Green: lreland, which retains its special status with neither quarantine nor testing required on arrival in the UK.

These rules are purely for travel to the UK. Some destinations, including the US, Australia and New Zealand, remain closed to British visitors, while many others have testing requirements – which often apply only to unvaccinated travellers.

What has changed for fully vaccinated travellers?

Previously there was no need to self-isolate on arrival from anywhere except red list countries, and this continues.

The former requirement for a test before travel to the UK has been dropped. Travellers are still obliged to book and pay in advance for a “day two” test – which can be taken on the day of return or either of the two following days.

On a yet-to-be-announced day at the end of October, the required PCR test will be downgraded to a lateral flow test. There is no clarity about the exact date: the government says it is “aiming to have it in place for when people return from half-term breaks”. When that happens, the bureaucracy and discomfort associated with the post-arrival test will remain the same. But the cost should fall.

For fully vaccinated travellers to the UK there will be three different policies during the course of October, depending on the arrival date:

  • Before 4am on 4 October: test to fly plus “day two” PCR test.
  • Between 4am on 4 October and late October: “day two” PCR test only.
  • From late October onwards: “day two” lateral flow test only.

It is clear from the questions being asked of The Independent travel desk that the three-stage plan is causing confusion, and that it would help public understanding if the ending of test to fly and switch from PCR to lateral flow test for the “day two” test took place simultaneously.

The government says the testing changes cannot take place at the same time because companies that operate tests will need to change their business models.

How much cheaper will a lateral flow test be?

PCR tests taken after arrival by British travellers typically cost between £50 and £70. Lateral flow tests are much easier to process without specialist equipment, and prices are likely to be in the £20-£40 range.

The downgrading of the “day two” requirement from PCR to much cheaper and faster lateral flow tests is likely to mark the beginning of the end of the get-rich-quick scheme that testing has become for some participants.

The Independent urges travellers to book their “day two” test as late as possible, because the requirements cannot get any more expensive. There is no advantage booking ahead, and possible gain by waiting.

What counts as fully vaccinated?

Having waited two weeks after completing a course of a vaccine in the UK, the European Union, the US or one of 63 other countries, including Australia, Canada, India, Japan, Malaysia, New Zealand, Switzerland and the UAE.

For the purposes of vaccinations received abroad, the government recognises Pfizer BioNTech, Oxford AstraZeneca, Moderna and Janssen (J&J).

Those jabbed with two different doses of these vaccines – for example, a person with one dose of Oxford AstraZeneca and one dose of Moderna – will be regarded as fully vaccinated.

Unlike most other countries, the UK does not recognised recent recovery from Covid as an alternative to full vaccination.

What is the status of people vaccinated in other nations?

They are regarded by the UK as unvaccinated and must follow the rules for such travellers.

The decision by the UK government not to recognise jabs administered in more than 100 other countries has caused fury for people who want to travel to Britain.

What about under-18s?

If they normally reside in the UK then they are treated as fully vaccinated. If they do not live in the UK, they are treated as fully vaccinated only if they normally reside in one of the 92 countries listed above whose vaccines have been recognised by the government.

So, for example, under-18s who live in France will be treated as fully vaccinated, but British children who live with expatriate families in Hong Kong or India would not.

They must follow the rules for unvaccinated travellers. This means: a test before travel (not for under 11s), a “day two” and “day eight” PCR test (not for under 5s) and self-isolation for 10 days on arrival in the UK.

Do we still have “traffic light” reviews?

Yes, on the (roughly) three weekly cycle that has been in effect since May. The coming dates are all Thursdays, but in practice the announcement can be made plus or minus a day: 28 October, 18 November, 9 December and 30 December (though I will be surprised if the last of those happens, falling as it does between Christmas and New Year).

What happens to unvaccinated travellers to the UK?

Life for unjabbed arrivals – or those whose vaccinations are not recognised by Britain – has become tougher. Multiple tests and self-isolation are obligatory even if you are coming in from one of the 41 former “green list” countries, such as Croatia, Germany or Canada.

Previously unjabbed arrivals from green nations were not required to quarantine and needed only to take a test before travel to the UK and a “day two” PCR test.

Now they must also self-isolate for 10 days, and take a second PCR test on day eight – as with all “non-red” countries.

In England they have the option to pay for yet another test, on day five, to be released from quarantine if it is negative.

What about the other UK nations?

Leaders in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have agreed to the changes – though the Welsh government has called for the PCR requirement for a day two test to be retained.

The health minister, Eluned Morgan, said: “The decision to move away from PCR tests from returning travellers on day two is concerning. This test, combined with genetic sequencing of all positive tests, is a vital part of our surveillance for coronavirus and protects our borders from the virus.

“We recognise the communication and enforcement challenges in having different testing requirements, and continue to thoroughly examine the evidence for a Wales-only testing regime, but the strongest solution to protect public health is for the UK Government to reinstate UK-wide testing.”

Any other business?

Almost a year after it was first mooted, changing planes in a red list airport will soon no longer taint your travel status.

The government says : “From late October, we will also be making changes to allow passengers who change flights or international trains during their journey to follow the measures associated to their country of departure, rather than any countries they have transited through as part of their journey.”

This follows the Global Travel Taskforce report recommendation from November 2020: “We will explore ways that transit could be safely facilitated, in line with public health requirements, without passengers needing to self-isolate on return to the UK.”

The timing makes it largely redundant before it has even taken effect: the only major international hub, Istanbul, was taken off the red list along with the rest of Turkey.

It may make a difference for a tiny number of passengers changing planes in Addis Ababa, Johannesburg or Mexico City, but that is the only benefit I can see.

There is no limit to the time a passenger spends in transit, so long as they remain “airside” – in other words, do not proceed through passport control at the intermediate stop.

What happens next?

I predict we may see an “arms race” for the attention of British travellers for the remainder of the year – which could mean, for example, that mainland Portugal – which currently requires even vaccinated travellers from the UK to take a test before arrival– to ease its restrictions.

Travel to the European Union will be further eased if the long-promised integration of NHS jabs and the EU digital Covid certificate is completed.

But there will still be some shuffling of countries between red and amber lists in the coming three months.

The government says the latest changes will ensure “continuity for industry and passengers the remainder of the year” – which I read as reassurance that the sudden, disruptive changes that have characterised the UK’s policies for the past 18 months are likely to be averted.

“We will look to set out a further review for the UK’s international travel policy early in the new year to provide further certainty for the spring and summer 2022 seasons,” the government says.

I asked the Department for Transport to clarify whether “early the new year” was the first week of January or the first month; officials declined to say.

What do you think about the changes?

“Too little, too late,” may be a tired cliché – but in this case it fits precisely. My scorecard records three positives: trimming the loathed “red list,” expanding recognition of vaccination and reducing the disproportionate testing regime for fully vaccinated travellers to England.

When you look closely, though, the UK system remains fraught with complication, cost and uncertainty. Much more needs to change we can be said to have a coherent and effective set of rules governing international travel.

The UK remains an outlier compared with other European nations, especially on the continued existence of a red list and the refusal to recognise the vaccinations of people who have had their jabs in most foreign countries.

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