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.
Britain’s travel industry, as you may have noticed, is decaying. The coronavirus pandemic started the rot, of course. Tourism and business travel remain well below 2019 levels globally. Yet among major European nations, the UK is performing uniquely badly. While most EU airlines are flying at above 60 per cent of pre-pandemic levels, Britain’s once-mighty carriers are stuck at a low-altitude 30 per cent.
At the root of the malaise consuming the travel industry is uncertainty. Many millions of people would dearly love to travel far and wide. But they fear the tangle of red tape they face inbound to the UK will ensnare them – as it so nearly did to a planeload of easyJet passengers from Montenegro, who, after the late-August “red list” manoeuvres, avoided 11 nights in hotel quarantine by just two minutes.
At the root of that uncertainty: baffling rules. It takes 0.00001 seconds to find endless examples. German, American and Swiss vaccinations will allow their recipients to swerve self-isolation on arrival in the UK, yet Australian, Canadian and Japanese jabs will not. Until a week on Monday, when that latter trio will be recognised – but travellers who were injected in Turkey, India or Brazil must still spend 10 days in quarantine.
Of all the unfathomable decisions that have characterised travel to the UK this summer, though, the “amber plus” move at the summer peak was the most boggling – and enormously costly to individual travellers, ferry firms, airlines and Eurostar.
Amber plus might sound like the ideal brand of sun cream, but in fact it was the bespoke category of the “traffic light” categories created especially for France, with a Travel Prevention Factor (TPF) of 50.
While travellers from every “regular amber” nation who had been fully vaccinated could avoid quarantine, those from France had to to self-isolate.
When asked to explain the move, ministers mumbled about alarming rates of the Beta variant on the distant isle of Reunion – technically part of France but nearly 6,000 miles from Paris, and itself strangely exempt from the French stipulation.
At the time of the decision, Spain had a proportion of new Beta infections 17 times higher than France, and was on the regular amber list; Bulgaria had twice as many Beta cases and was on the green list.
Huw Merriman, Tory MP for Bexhill and Battle, was as puzzled as everyone. As chair of the Transport Select Committee, he contacted the Joint Biosecurity Centre (JBC) – whose recommendations are, we are told, relied upon by ministers.
“I wrote to the JBC on 3 August asking for a response by 17 August to better inform us as to why France had moved to ‘amber plus’ when Spain hadn’t, when the Beta rates seemed to be greater,” he said.
“No response at all,” said Mr Merriman, five weeks after his deadline expired. “They’re not writing back to us. They just seem to be a bit ‘Wizard of Oz’ about it.
“The JBC sounds very grand and authoritative but the lack of transparency is making me wonder what lies behind the curtain?”
In the week that the prime minister invoked Kermit the Frog to save the planet from the climate crisis, we need a proper wizard to save the travel industry.
Right now all I can see on the horizon is reality emulating art. Remember the unduly pessimistic Tin Man? “Emerald City? Why, that’s a long and dangerous journey. And it might rain on the way.”
I hope the government does not get any ideas about that Travel Prevention Factor.
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