PM’s briefing was disappointing but nothing has changed, says Ian Taylor
Anyone expecting detail and clarity on the restart of international travel in Boris Johnson’s bank holiday announcement was doomed to disappointment. The lack of detail was predicted.
But the sense of anti-climax Johnson’s statement left given the weight of industry expectation and media speculation over recent days was remarkable.
“Beyond disappointing” was how Clive Wratten, chief executive of the Business Travel Association, described it. He was not wrong.
There was less in the briefing than even the most-cynical among us anticipated.
The prime minister did not even deign to announce the traffic-light system for categorising destinations we had been led to expect, but left it to an accompanying statement providing updates on the four ‘roadmap reviews’ of which the Global Travel Taskforce is one.
The taskforce will now report “later this week”. Whether that will mean publication of the taskforce report before the weekend or on Monday April 12 as previously promised was not clear.
When the report is published, the framework for a restart should at least be laid out – and, hopefully, we will know the type of Covid-19 tests required pre-departure and post-arrival for travellers returning from ‘green’ destinations.
For now, May 17 remains “the earliest possible” restart date. That has not yet been postponed. But the government remains cautious so it must be in doubt for all but a possible handful of destinations.
However, some things are now clear. We do have confirmation of a traffic light system and it will have three tiers, not four as touted by Heathrow and suggested in some media reports.
Holiday travel will be permitted to destinations categorised as ‘green’ and these will be judged according to their vaccination rates, infection rates, incidence of variants and testing for variants.
Travel to green destinations will involve at least two Covid tests – one before departing the destination and a second post-arrival in the UK – but no quarantine.
So, to begin with, no travel will be restriction free.
Of course, the two tests will be in addition to any test or tests required by a destination. The type of tests will be important and have a significant bearing on the costs to the traveller.
No doubt, the first of these in the destination will be paid for by the traveller. The second may also need to be paid for unless a free, NHS-provided lateral flow test is deemed sufficient.
The widespread availability of these rapid tests was announced yesterday. We await confirmation on whether they can be used for travel.
The PM said enough to suggest Covid-status certification may allow the vaccinated to skip the double test requirements once these certificates become available.
But this will not be an option from the outset. Johnson noted: “First, we need to work out the proposals. I want to stress that this will not happen before May 17.”
The red list of destinations with mandatory hotel quarantine will remain. And everywhere not designated red or green will be ‘amber’, with the same restrictions as currently in place for essential travel to anywhere not on the red list.
That means 10-days’ self-isolation on return plus three Covid tests – one pre-departure and two during self-isolation on days two and eight – with the option of an additional fourth test on day five to shorten the quarantine period for anyone not sick of testing and flush with the money to pay for it.
Clearly, any serious restart for the sector depends on the green list including significant destinations around the Mediterranean.
It also depends on a fairly rapid adoption of Covid-status certification and acceptance of rapid and cheaper Covid-testing options.
Certification and rapid tests may be in the offing, but neither is guaranteed in time for a summer restart.
The surge in infections and variants in the EU also makes it difficult to foresee an immediate resumption to some important destinations – France, Italy, Spain, for example.
However, the situation can and hopefully will change for the better with the continuing vaccination roll-out and warmer weather. In these two key respects, things are moving in the right direction. There was a brief but significant restart last summer with no vaccine roll-out, so the prospects this time must be better.
In the meantime, it’s not crazy for the government to remain cautious – better that than to be gung-ho, get it wrong yet again and have to retreat.
It might be the initial resumption is limited. Recent media speculation has suggested only a handful of destinations could be accessible at first, with Israel, the US and Dubai among these. Malta, Gibraltar, Barbados and other parts of the Caribbean have also been touted.
Some of this is no doubt well-informed, but some is also likely the product of wishful thinking from those in the industry giving briefings.
For now, Dubai remains on the red list with the rest of the UAE. It seems a stretch to see it suddenly jumping to green.
The US would be a welcome addition to any green list and the country’s vaccination roll-out would place it in contention to be. But many states, including Florida, have seen recent surges in infection and the US government has still to open the border to inbound travellers.
So the jury remains out.
Everyone would like certainty, but in the circumstances that may simply be unrealistic. To work, the system for restarting travel has to be capable of incorporating frequent changes in the situation on the ground in multiple countries. So it would be wrong to expect an unchanging system.
The industry will most likely have to continue to live with uncertainty. Unfortunately, that must also mean limited notice of changes – perhaps seven days at most.
And it will probably mean ‘blanket’ restrictions for mainland destinations for a while yet, with regional variations only for islands – as was the case last summer.