Ministers are preparing to announce a scheme to allow vaccinated people returning to the UK to avoid quarantine. It comes nine months after the UK government recognised the need for an international vaccine passport to provide easier journeys for immunised travellers.
Leaks from government suggest that it could take effect for travellers to England from 19 July. But there are many aspects of the policy that appear not to have been worked out yet.
These are the key questions and answers.
What’s the problem?
At present the rules for entering the UK from almost every country on earth are extremely onerous. From “red list” countries, arrivals must go into 11 nights of hotel quarantine at their expense. From “amber list” locations, which include the vast majority of popular holiday destinations, it’s 10 days of self-isolation. Both require multiple tests at significant expense.
The rules serve as an effective travel ban. Sixteen months on from the start of the coronavirus pandemic, many people who are separated from loved ones, or need to make business trips, or simply want to escape abroad, are increasingly desperate for the chance to travel with relatively little hassle and expense.
Since February, a rising number of countries have said they will allow British visitors who have completed a course of vaccination to enter without the need to test or quarantine.
The first Global Travel Taskforce report identified the need for “a global framework for validating test results and vaccination records” in November 2020, but little action appears to have happened.
The governments of the four UK nations are offering various systems to demonstrate vaccination status to foreign countries. But until now ministers have refused to contemplate any concessions to the tens of millions of British travellers who have been vaccinated by the NHS.
As a result, the outbound travel industry is facing another summer of decline while travellers endure expensive and stressful procedures with little measurable benefit; only a tiny proportion of amber list arrivals are testing positive.
So what is happening?
A political decision to allow quarantine exemption for double-vaccinated travellers has been taken, at least for UK citizens entering England. On Monday, the health secretary, Sajid Javid, promised MPs that vaccinated British travellers will be able to travel more freely “very, very soon”.
The transport secretary, Grant Shapps, is expected to announce on Thursday that fully jabbed travellers will be able to avoid quarantine on arrival in England – though they will still need to undergo testing.
Speaking to the Transport Select Committee, Mr Shapps said no decision has been yet, despite leaks to newspapers saying the current need to self-isolate could be removed from 19 July.
In response to a question from Labour’s Ben Bradshaw, he said: “I can confirm we haven’t had the final meeting, discussions yet.”
He declined to say when he might make a statement on the issue.
Heathrow already has a scheme, doesn’t it?
No. The UK’s busiest airport, as well as British Airways and Virgin Atlantic, is trying to put pressure on the government to ease restrictions. So passengers on four routes to Heathrow will be invited to take part in a trial that offers the chance of faster queues.
British Airways and Virgin Atlantic passengers checking in at Athens, Montego Bay in Jamaica, New York JFK and Los Angeles will be invited to prove their vaccination status before boarding their planes.
It is being described as a “proof of concept”, and anonymised data will be shared with the UK government. But volunteers will get zero benefit except a slightly faster queue; quarantine and multiple tests are still necessary.
At present the trial is analogous to asking travellers: “If you prove your star sign is Capricorn before you depart for the UK, you’ll get a fast-track queue at Heathrow.”
Proponents hope, though, the trial will demonstrate to government that the system can work without creating chaos – and that it could serve as a model more widely as international travel restarts.
What could possibly go wrong?
Plenty, which is why some people believe the aim of introducing a workable system by 19 July is extremely ambitious.
Implementation poses many technical and political challenges. The system needs to able to verify a person’s vaccination status – whether this is done before travel (as in the BA/Virgin/Heathrow trial), at the UK Border or even random spot checks.
Whichever is chosen, there will need to be a link initially to the NHS database and, longer term, to networks worldwide.
The issue of what happens with unvaccinated people – including children – is highly sensitive. It seems likely that under-18s accompanying vaccinated adults will be admitted with additional testing requirements. Adults who are unvaccinated will continue to have to self-isolate.
Young adults who will not be fully jabbed until September may well be angry that they face effective travel discrimination – as will people who cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons.
In addition, with coronavirus levels set to soar to 100,000 daily in the UK, it is questionable how many nations will want to welcome British visitors, vaccinated or not.
Meanwhile some countries, such as Malta, are banning outright anyone aged 12 or over who has not been fully vaccinated.
Will foreign visitors be given the same option?
Not initially, though there are hopes that the NHS certification system could be linked with the EU Digital Covid Certificate to allow freer movement for European visitors.
What does it mean for people arriving from red and green countries?
Leaks from government suggest not much will change. The “red list” of high-risk countries seems set to remain, and there is no indication that the “green list” requirement for pre-departure and post-arrival tests, even for vaccinated travellers, will be eased.
Is this just for England?
Initially, yes. The devolved administrations in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland will continue to make their own decisions on international arrival procedures. But Wales and Scotland share land borders with England, which will make it difficult to enforce radically different policies.
What is the effect on domestic holidays?
Because of all the travel restrictions and the delays in easing international journeys, many holidaymakers are choosing to stay in the UK. The surge in demand means that prices are rising sharply in some locations.
The Headland Hotel at Newquay in Cornwall is quoting £570 per night for a double room (with breakfast) with a minimum three-night stay. In Northern Ireland, a five-bedroom house in Coleraine has been let for £7,000 for a week.
But with inbound tourism effectively cancelled for the summer, many businesses – particularly in UK cities, as well as locations such as Stratford-upon-Avon, say they are struggling to attract customers.
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