U-turns, bridges and corridors: a two-year timeline of Britain’s chaotic travel rules

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New Year is a chance for a fresh start, but also a time to reflect on what has passed. And when it comes to travel, it’s worth remembering the series of complex rules and erratic policy changes that holidaymakers have had to endure simply for wanting to head abroad during the last two years.

We have adapted to many things during the pandemic, but 2022 presents an opportunity to take a different approach to travel. One that doesn’t dampen demand or add hundreds of pounds to the cost of a holiday. 

Here we look at the various hoops travellers have had to jump through, from traffic lights to testing rules and desperate dashes home. Buckle up, it’s going to be a bumpy ride. 


2020 

Global shutdown

Those who squeezed in their holidays in the first couple of months of 2020 counted themselves lucky when planes were grounded in late March, though who would have predicted that almost two years on, international travel would still be fraught with difficulty. 

Between April and June, air traffic dropped by 90 per cent across the globe as airports became ghost towns, simply ferrying a few stragglers back to their home countries. Some nations, most notably New Zealand, immediately sealed their borders and remain closed to this day. 

The age of air bridges 

By summer, the most common refrain heard in park meet-ups was ‘I need a holiday’. All that banana bread baking and the acute awkwardness of Zoom drinks parties had taken its toll. And finally the Government relented, announcing a plan for ‘air bridges’ with countries it deemed Covid-safe – later rebranded as travel corridors. Britons returning from these destinations would be exempt from the strict requirement to quarantine at home for 14 days, which came into force on June 8.

The initial list, released on July 3, contained a decent 73 countries and territories, including holiday favourites such as France, Italy, Spain and Greece. The US and Portugal however, were notably absent. 

The criteria for making the list was said to be a tiny seven-day rate of 20 Covid cases per 100,000 residents. Creep above this figure you could well be struck off. For a little context, the UK’s current Covid rate is 1,893 per 100,000. 

The great dash home

Of course, maintaining this minimal Covid rate was almost impossible and a low-level of anxiety accompanied any prospective summer holiday. First to be dumped off the list, on the very day the policy was implemented, was Serbia. And the dominoes kept falling, with big-hitter Spain removed by the end of the month along with a clutch of Eastern European countries. France fell in mid-August, which prompted a desperate dash home in the small two-day window before home quarantine was required. 

So summer holidays abroad in 2020 came with a significant degree of risk, but with the UK yet to introduce tests for travel (and no vaccination rules), it’s worth noting they were relatively hassle-free. 

Still, by the end of the summer, the list had been decimated. Greece was divided with certain islands having their corridor revoked while others remained in place and the overall outlook seemed uncertain.

Lockdown Two, and a loophole of sorts 

With a second month-long lockdown announced for England at the end of October, the vast majority of the country resigned themselves to staying within their own four walls for the foreseeable future. However, a determined minority managed to get away in the small window before the new restrictions – which banned non-essential overseas travel and even overnight breaks in England – came into force. 

Unlike during the spring shutdown, where travellers were urged to return to Britain without delay, the Government advice stated: “British nationals currently abroad do not need to return home immediately. However, you should check with your airline or travel operator on arrangements for returning.”

And those who took the plunge may have been thankful they exploited the loophole of sorts. By January, and Lockdown Three, foreign travel was once again banned.


2021

Hello hotel quarantine

The first few months of 2021 saw no holidays but the introduction of hotel quarantine, the most controversial travel policy of the pandemic. 

From February 15, Anyone returning from a county deemed high-risk was required to spend 10 days in a quarantine hotel at a cost of £1,750, including two Covid tests. This was later upped to £2,285. The rate for one additional adult, or a child aged 12 or over, was £1,430; while children aged between 5-11 cost £325 each.

Forget Hotel California, the Eagles could have been singing about a dismal airport hotel. Yes, you can check in anytime, but you can never leave (apart from a quick daily walk around the car park). A verse should probably be added about the food, which has been uniformly blasted by guests and general shabby conditions.

When announcing the policy, the Government warned that passengers who tried to cover up their arrival from a red list country faced jail sentences of up to 10 years, while anyone who tried to avoid mandatory hotel quarantine would face fines of up to £10,000. 

Britain remains one of the few countries in the world to introduce the draconian policy – Transport Secretary Grant Shapps previously described the scheme as “as the UK’s first line of defence”.

Green light 

The total ban on foreign holidays came to an end on May 17, when a new traffic light system was introduced. Essentially a more complex version of the travel corridors of 2020, countries were categorised green, amber or red. Only those returning from low-risk green list countries would be exempt from quarantine on return, essentially ruling out holidays to amber countries. Holidays to red list countries were banned.

Unfortunately, the initial list of 12 green countries was a tad underwhelming, with only Portugal, Iceland and Gibraltar viable holiday options, given Britons were still banned from the likes of Australia and the Falklands is rather a long way to travel.

To heighten the tension, it was announced the list would be reviewed every three weeks, with countries reshuffled according to their perceived Covid risk. This led to one-day honeymoons in Mexico and pilots flying planes from Montenegro at top speeds to beat the quarantine cut-off, as destinations were dumped on the red list. 

Testing times 

To complicate matters further, all travellers were now subject to Covid tests to return to Britain. Green list travellers were initially required to take a pre-departure test, plus a post-arrival PCR test, while amber list travellers had to take a pre-departure test and two PCR tests during their 10-day quarantine. 

Later on, amber list travellers were allowed to be released from quarantine after a more manageable five days under the Test to Release initiative, pending a negative test result. 

Families heading abroad were forced to fork out hundreds of pounds on multiple tests, which had no price cap. The Government attempted to control the rogue market, but it remains marred by delayed results and misleading prices. These days a PCR test can be purchased for around £45 per person, much lower than during 2020 when they would typically cost more than £100 but still a significant outlay.

Vaccination vacation 

As summer went on and with much of the UK population double-jabbed, it was announced that the fully vaccinated would no longer have to quarantine when returning from amber list countries from July 19, which meaningfully opened up overseas travel.

At the same time, other countries were imposing rules on the unvaccinated, whose travel landscape was shrinking. Malta took the drastic step of banning all those over 11 who had not received two doses and others increased testing requirements. 

For every traveller, heading on holiday now meant packing a folder for your reams of documentation. A passenger locator form was required, evidence of a negative test result and a vaccination pass. And that was before you factored in your destination’s requirements. Of course the new rules led to many airport meltdowns. Did you really go abroad in 2021 if you didn’t see someone crying at the airport having filled out a form incorrectly? 

Amber alert

No sooner had the rules for the vaccinated been eased did the Government decide to throw another curveball. Alarmed by France’s growing infection rate, it created a new Amber Plus category which required travellers from across the channel to isolate for 10 days, or five days pending the result of a negative test. 

While the policy only lasted for two weeks (until August 8), it was a tense chapter in the fraught Anglo-Franco Covid relations, which frankly deserves its own timeline. The latest saga continues as British tourists remain banned from France. 

Simplifying the system

After a stressful summer and pivot to ‘living with the virus’, foreign travel was finally simplified with the green and amber lists merged and testing requirements loosened. For vaccinated travellers, pre-departure tests were scrapped and Day 2 PCR tests downgraded to cheaper rapid lateral flow tests. 

The diminishing red list was finally emptied entirely in October, though Grant Shapps said it would remain ‘on standby’ in the unlikely event a new variant emerged. For a moment, travel felt close to normal, with only masks on planes, passenger locator forms and Day 2 rapid tests reminders of the pandemic.

Omicron chaos 

Unfortunately, this relative sanity was not to last. With the emergence of the omicron variant, the red list was revived at the end of November with South Africa and 10 other African countries subject to hotel quarantine restrictions. 

Travel tests were also amped up with the pre-departure tests required once again. Day 2 PCR tests were brought back with the unwelcome addition of having to self-isolate until you received a negative result. 

However, with omicron spreading at phenomenal rates, the red list was declared redundant and emptied once again on December 14. Still, travel remains on shaky footing with other countries persisting with tighter border rules.


2022

What’s next? 

The good news is that today’s travel review will reduce restrictions with both pre-departure tests and Day 2 PCR tests set to be scrapped (in favour of lateral flow tests). We’re back to the pre-omicron state of affairs. 

There is a sense the tide is turning on the perceived effectiveness of strict travel restrictions, with the World Health Organization (WHO) lambasting the flight bans placed on African countries in the face of omicron. The hope is that governments around the world will review their own chaotic travel policy timelines and reassess.

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