Britons will have to wait a little longer before booking summer holidays amid fears of COVID variants, despite the UK government unveiling a tiered “traffic light” travel system.
The news comes as Prime Minister Boris Johnson signed off on England entering the next phase of easing COVID-19 restrictions, which will mean non-essential retail such as shops and outdoor dining can reopen from next week.
“On Monday the 12th I will be going to the pub myself and cautiously but irreversibly raising a pint of beer to my lips,” Mr Johnson said.
However, guarantees on whether travel abroad will be allowed to go ahead from May 17, as originally mooted, remain unclear.
“We’re hopeful that we can get going from May 17. We’re hopeful, but I do not wish to give hostages to fortune or to underestimate the difficulties that we’re seeing in some of the destination countries that people might want to go to,” Mr Johnson said.
“We don’t want to see the virus being reimported into this country from abroad. Plainly, there is a surge in other parts of the world and we have to be mindful of that.”
The UK has managed to suppress the spread of COVID-19 in recent months thanks to a strict lockdown, as well as a rapid vaccine scheme.
More than 31 million jabs have been administered so far — nearly 50 per cent of the UK population.
However, a surge of new infections has seen popular travel destinations, such as France, plunged into lockdown.
Traffic light scheme
In the UK, it remains illegal to travel abroad — unless for a specific reason such as work.
Those caught flouting the rule could face fines of up to 5,000 pounds ($9,000).
In England, those who do travel must quarantine in a hotel or at home upon return. The hotel quarantine scheme was only introduced earlier this year.
However, in the UK government’s roadmap review it was confirmed that a “traffic light” system would be used when non-essential travel returns.
Under the proposed scheme, countries will be rated on a variety of factors, including the proportion of the population that has been vaccinated, rates of infection and the presence of new variants.
Currently, travellers coming to the UK from non-red list countries are required to take a pre-flight COVID test and complete 10 days of home isolation (including two tests on days two and eight after arrival).
Under the new scheme, travellers returning from “green” countries will be required to undergo testing before departure and upon return with no need to quarantine.
Testing requirements for “amber” countries will remain the same, while “red” countries will be no-go zones.
Green not so good
Experts worry the scheme is overly simplistic — and won’t be able to keep up with spread of emerging variants.
“The movement of people will be much quicker than the graphs will ever show us,” Dr Michael Head, a senior research fellow in global health at the University of Southampton, told the ABC.
“I think part of the problem with a traffic light system may be that it is reactive to current data and it may be behind the curve in terms of picking up signals of, for example, increased case rates or include increased prevalence of new variants.
“I think it’d be tricky to keep it so up to date, that it is informative from those points of view.”
It also fails to acknowledge that travellers will inevitably come into contact with other travellers from other countries, Dr Head added.
“If you do go to France or Spain or wherever it happens to be, there will be people from other countries holidaying there too,” he said.
“And it may be that their countries are at higher risk and have higher case rates and so on.
“That wouldn’t necessarily be picked up in the UK dashboards, because they’re only focusing on the country you’re travelling to.
“So this is partly how the virus went around the world in the first place.”
The UK government has not yet specified which countries would be on the list, and the travel industry is desperate for more certainty.
Currently, 39 countries including Brazil, South Africa and the United Arab Emirates are on the UK’s red list.
It’s unclear whether the UK’s neighbours — which include popular travel destinations such as France and Spain, where cases numbers are surging — will be included .
“It’s hugely important both for the travel industry and for consumers,” Daniel Pearce, CEO of the Travel Trade Gazette, told the ABC.
“I think a lot of the dialogue around this tends to be people can’t go on holiday and haven’t been able to go on holiday for a longer time — an equally significant factor is people can’t connect with family and friends in other countries.”
However, Mr Pearce said that even though consumers were desperate for a summer holiday, a lot of sales were being made for later this year and even for 2022.
“Last summer we had the travel corridors and constant changing week on week with countries in and countries out — what industry and consumers crave is clarity here which enables longer term planning,” Mr Pearce said.
“The travel industry doesn’t come back overnight. A lot of planning has to go into it — aviation, the cruise market, all aspects of travel. There needs to be quite a bit of planning before things open up.”
Meanwhile, the UK government will be holding vaccine passport trials, including at the World Snooker Championship and the FA Cup final at Wembley.
The trial will explore whether large-scale events can be held in closed settings without social distancing.
The vaccine passports or certifications would indicate whether a person has been vaccinated against COVID-19, has recently tested negative, or has some form of natural immunity.
“I want to stress there are complicated ethical and practical issues as I think I said last time raised by the idea of COVID status certification using vaccination alone,” Mr Johnson said.
“‘So you have to be very careful how you handle this and don’t start a system that is discriminatory.”
The first pilot event will be a comedy night in Liverpool on April 16, where audience members will be tested for COVID-19 before and after the show.
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