One of the UK’s historic advantages as a place to live, visit and do business is its openness to the rest of the world, and post-Brexit plans to emphasise “global Britain” depend on maintaining that edge. The need to keep the Covid-19 infection rate down and protect residents from the Indian variant and other new strains has significantly complicated the picture. But the government’s current approach to international travel needs to be rethought.
Under the traffic-light system put into effect as part of the May 17 reopening, arrivals from 12 countries and territories with high vaccination and low hospitalisation rates are eligible for relatively free “green” status: passengers must take a Covid-19 test before flying to the UK and again two days after arrival. Forty-three countries with high infection rates are on the red list. Only UK and Irish residents can fly in from those countries and they must pay for and spend 10 days in a government-approved quarantine hotel and take two Covid tests.
The rest of the world is on the amber list. Passengers pay for at least three Covid tests — before flying, and two and eight days after — and quarantine for 10 days, unless they also pay for a fourth test to get out early, at a cost of nearly £300 per person (the airlines are starting to secure discounts). Vaccination status makes no difference, and the online forms can be confusing. The arrivals procedure also makes a mockery of the process, because everyone queues in the same hall to have their documents inspected. Heathrow airport is due to open a dedicated terminal for “red list” countries next month.
Decisions about which country is on which list have been poorly explained. India should have been added to the red list sooner; the delay allowed the infectious variant first identified there into the UK and prompted France to impose quarantines on British visitors. There are due to be regular reviews but the criteria are unclear. Grant Shapps, the transport secretary, has said European holiday destinations could be added to the green list soon.
The current UK regime’s broad-brush approach is misguided. British businesses are being prevented from meeting with overseas clients and employees, would-be holidaymakers are being denied the benefits of reopening, and the parts of the UK economy that depend on international visitors are suffering. The traffic light system needs clearer goals. Now that the most at-risk populations have had jabs, the focus should shift to containing dangerous variants rather than deterring travel. The point is to keep people healthy, not permanently locked down.
Allowing vaccinated people more freedom to travel is a first step. The US only asks fully protected visitors to take a Covid test before getting on the plane and again three to five days later. Self-isolation is required only for those who display symptoms.
The government cannot stop there: it should also find ways to ease travel to and from countries that lack vaccines. Restoring some of the £4bn cut from the foreign aid budget to fund Covax, the global vaccine programme, and redirecting any surplus orders for UK jabs to India and other overwhelmed countries, would help reduce the risk of dangerous variants.
Transparency also matters. People and businesses need to be able to plan. After the UK announced the green list, airlines boosted available seats to Portugal (which made it) by 47 per cent, while cutting those to Greece and Spain (which didn’t) by 20 per cent apiece, according to OAG statistics. The government must spell out the criteria it uses to decide when and how it will put out the welcome mat.