The absurdities that linger in Britain’s approach to travel

There was good news for British holidaymakers last week thanks to the rolling back of omicron travel restrictions. Pre-departure tests have gone for fully vaccinated Britons, while Day 2 tests no longer need to be expensive PCRs – with no requirement to self-isolate while you wait for your result.

Nevertheless, many other rules linger, adding cost and hassle to every trip abroad. Plus, the threat of further restrictions lingers, stealing away the joy of planning your next break. Figures reveal the impact of last-minute changes. More than 600,000 travellers cancelled flights from Heathrow in December, following the last tightening of restrictions. Heathrow’s passenger numbers for 2021 are a clear barometer of traveller confidence: they were the lowest seen since the 1970s. 

Now that both the initial two vaccine doses and booster jabs have been rolled out to all UK adults, the travel industry wants the chopping and changing – and, ideally, other restrictions – to come to an end. Heathrow chief executive John Holland-Kaye said today: “There are currently travel restrictions, such as testing, on all Heathrow routes. The aviation industry will only fully recover when these are all lifted and there is no risk that they will be reimposed at short notice.”

Grant Shapps, the Transport Secretary, said at the latest travel update that the Government wants to provide more certainty to passengers. He confirmed that a full review of international travel measures for this year will be completed by the end of 2022. Here are five of the most pressing absurdities that must be scrapped. 

Day 2 tests

Cheaper lateral flow tests are now acceptable. These make more sense than PCR tests given that results are almost immediate. Among the list of government-approved testers, some providers have frequently failed to deliver PCR results on time, if at all. In approving providers with slow or poor service, the Government has highlighted the fact that travel testing can have less to do with avoiding a spread of the virus than offering a political tool. 

The more sensible approach would be: take a lateral if you have any symptoms, before, during or after travel. Why should international travellers foot the additional layer of hassle and cost of a private test when returning from, for example, the Maldives (where they are likely to have spent most time outdoors spread out from other travellers), while anyone travelling in the UK is spared this stress? 

The seven-day case rate in the Maldives is 408.87 per 100,000 people; the UK’s, by comparison, is 1.791.21. They’ve travelled by plane, you say? Well, on that journey they would’ve been subject to tighter controls (masks in the airport and in the air; regular temperature screening) than a Britons who’d spent a weekend in pubs or clubs – as is permitted under England’s domestic rules. 

Back in September 2021, pre-omicron research found that even travellers who’d visited red list countries were at less risk of contracting Covid that those in the UK. 

The hotel quarantine policy

This most draconian of rules is waiting spectre-like to ruin holidays in 2022. All 11 countries were removed from the red list on December 15, meaning now arriving passengers would be subject to Government quarantine in the UK. Still this positive step came with a caveat. 

“The managed quarantine hotel policy remains in place to act as a crucial line of defence against the importation of variants of concern”, read the official release. 

“Prison-like” conditions in which travellers paid thousands of pounds for often poor accommodation and even poorer sustenance were a clear punishment for travellers and the industry. There were even allegations of female guests being sexual harrassed by security guards. 

Should a new “variant of concern” emerge, rather than reverting to this knee-jerk penalty, the Government could use self-isolation for travellers returning from relevant destinations – a sensible idea that was floated back in December. 

The Passenger Locator Form 

An odious piece of admin, with details kept on file for weeks, the Passenger Locator Form could be the last piece of Covid travel paraphernalia to disappear. 

Travellers can have opted for every Covid-19 jab they’ve been offered, have tested negative a number of times during their journey and still have to account for their whereabouts throughout their trip and during the 10 days after their return. 

My recent experience revealed that, should you make a mistake on this form, it’s very tricky (read: impossible) to find anyone to speak to to rectify your record. Resubmitting the form does not, it would appear, update the information held by Government departments. 

It may seem a small inconvenience compared to the other Covid admin, and yet any airport queue will reveal the additional stress it lumps on travellers. 

Harsh rules for the unvaccinated

Whatever your views on regulations aimed to encourage vaccination, the rule for unvaccinated travellers defy common sense. 

Take this, for example: an unvaccinated traveller can test negative for Covid, have no symptoms and still be required to self-isolate for up to 10 days when a fully vaccinated person who has tested positive can isolate for as few as seven. 

An unvaccinated passenger could opt for a Test to Release on Day 5 (with their day of arrival being Day 0). If this test returns a negative result, they could end their self-isolation, but would still be required to take a Day 8 test. 

Warnings about changing vaccine rules

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on January 4 that booster jabs for travel were likely to become “the norm” very soon. 

Even for those who enthusiastically took up the third jab, this leaves a worrying question: when will this end? Would the roll-out of a fourth dose add another layer to the UK’s Covid Pass for Travel? Should Covid-19 vaccines become an annual (or perhaps more regular) occurrence for all, will these always need to be up-to-date in order to return to our own country without facing quarantine? 

The protection of recent infection, meanwhile, is yet to be recognised under the UK Government’s rules for return to England. 

Proof of previous infection is available through the NHS app and is recognised by a number of countries as an alternative to testing requirements (bearing in mind that those who have recovered from Covid within the past three months are likely to return a false-positive result on a PCR test, even though their infection risk has long passed). The natural antibodies from a Covid infection are considered to lessen your risk of carrying or contracting the virus, writes Hazel Plush. 

The UK rules ignore this; only full vaccination will exempt you from a blanket 10 days of isolation. 

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