This week the UK recorded a day with zero covid deaths. I heard this exciting news in Portugal – my only realistic option for international travel given that I’m not yet fully vaccinated.
To get here I had to take a PCR test and fill out a locator form before travelling. To get back to the UK I will have to take a pre-flight test, fill out a locator form, and have a further PCR test within two days of arriving back in the UK.
These are the strict precautions in place for countries deemed low enough risk to be on the green list.
I spent 30 July 2020 – the only other day since the start of the first lockdown that zero covid deaths were recorded – in France. I did not have to take any tests to travel there or back, only one country required a passenger locator form, and I had a wide range of quarantine-free destinations to choose from.
We have clearly learnt a lot in the last year and we are leading the way in vaccinations. As a result, international travel will be much safer this summer and tomorrow’s ‘traffic light’ update should reflect this.
First, the green list should be expanded. There are many reasonable candidates: islands where everyone has been vaccinated (in Greece); places with similar vaccination rates to the UK (like the USA); and countries with much lower daily case rates (Barbados, Malta, Morocco). Where the covid risk level is broadly the same as the UK, travel restrictions should be eased.
Second, the Government must change its rhetoric on the amber list. If you travel to the UK from an amber list country you must take three (rather than two) tests and also quarantine at home for ten days. The Transport Secretary has recently spoken about the increase in enforcement visits for those quarantining at home.
This belt and braces approach provides the necessary extra security and the Government must stop pretending that their policy is more draconian than it is. It is entirely legal to travel to these countries for leisure or business, providing you are prepared to take the tests and quarantine at home on your return. Ministers should stick to the letter of their own legislation when speaking to the media.
Third, the red list should be an active line of defence. We must learn from the unnecessary delay to the decision to add India to the list that requires arrivals to quarantine in a government-specified hotel. We would not be debating a delay to the fourth step of the unlocking roadmap – nor would leisure travel to France be banned – if the decision had been taken with more urgency.
A small but nimble red list is the price we pay for an expanded green list.
As international travel continues to open up, the mentality of decision-makers in Government will need to evolve. It is good to see that an agreement has been reached to use a separate terminal at Heathrow for flights arriving from countries on the red list.
But recent stories about waiting times at the border of up to six hours are seriously concerning. Border Force appears to have added some additional resource at key ports of entry as international travel has reopened and this progress cannot be allowed to slip.
We must once again think about the first impression that we are giving to our visitors. Our vaccination successes and our rigorous travel protocols should allow us to once again become a hub for tourism, trade, and talent.
Over the summer we should take advantage of our renewed freedom to welcome visitors who have been vaccinated or who can prove that they are not currently infected. In normal times, these are the people who make up about half of the retail spend in the West End. As Government support winds down, we need tourism to wind back up.
Come the autumn, our universities should once again be full with international students contributing intellectually and financially to the strength of our higher education sector. And whilst many companies have adopted new ways of working over the last year, there are some business activities that are just better in person.
We are an island dependent upon trade and our economic recovery depends on our ability to travel safely.