New EU travel rules could leave us stuck in holiday purgatory

Oliver Smith
·4-min read
Testing, not quarantine, is the answer to ensuring Britons can enjoy their much-needed holidays and the vital travel industry survives - getty
Testing, not quarantine, is the answer to ensuring Britons can enjoy their much-needed holidays and the vital travel industry survives - getty

When it comes to imposing quarantine on arrivals from other countries, the UK’s has for weeks had a clear – if entirely arbitrary – threshold. If a nation crosses the barrier of 20 new infections per 100,000 people during the preceding week it will find itself on the naughty step. Spain, France, Belgium, Austria, and many others, hit the mark and were immediately blacklisted. 

But a rise in cases in Britain, driven in no small part by increased testing, has now seen our own seven-day rate leap to 31.6. So what now?

In lieu of an official response – I’ve asked the Department of Health four times in the last week for clarification, all to no avail – it seems that an extra degree of leniency has been adopted. Denmark, for example, was tipped for inclusion on the quarantine list last week after its case rate comfortably hurdled the 20 barrier (it has now reached 31.5), but the UK permitted it a stay of execution. Similarly, green-listed Slovenia has reached 23.3 per 100,000 but no action has been taken. 

So what is the new threshold? Basic logic would dictate that quarantine measures are pointless if a country has a lower infection rate than ours, so perhaps the threshold should now be the UK’s own seven-day figure. 

This would mean Denmark is the only country at risk of being added to the naughty step this week, while holidays to the likes of Italy and Greece (those recently ostracized Greek islands excluded) look very safe. It would also open the door to the removal of restrictions for arrivals from a host of quarantined countries such as Jamaica and Mexico (just in time for some winter sun).

Coronavirus Quarantine Tracker Extended
Coronavirus Quarantine Tracker Extended

Should UK cases rise further, and if the same logic is used, the likes of Portugal, Switzerland and Croatia might return to travel maps. 

But it’s not that simple. As the UK’s case rate rises, it runs the risk of being added to the quarantine lists of other countries. In recent weeks, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia and Norway have imposed new restrictions on UK visitors. Britons must now self-isolate for 10 days upon arrival in Norway; for the three Baltic states, the quarantine period is 14 days. 

The EU last week proposed a bloc-wide traffic light system that would see any country with more than 50 cases per 100,000 over the previous two weeks (for Britain the figure is now 51.1) and a case positivity rate of more than 3% (it was 6% in the UK for the week commencing August 31) placed on a “red” list, to which quarantine rules might apply. On Saturday, Ireland became one of the first countries to offer its backing to the new policy.

So could the whole of the EU soon be off-limits to Britons? Only if Britain’s infection rate does not come down and every member state adopts the new rules. It makes no sense, of course, for Spain (heavily reliant on tourism and with a 14-day case rate of 270.7 (more than five times the EU’s proposed limit) to quarantine arrivals from the UK. But, as things stand, if the EU’s recommendations were adopted tomorrow Britons might be forced to quarantine on arrival when visiting any country with a lower rate of infection, or else quarantine on their return after visiting every country with a higher rate of infection. We would be stuck in travel purgatory, with the vast majority of European holidays impossible for millions. 

All of which offers further evidence that testing, not quarantine, is the answer to ensuring Britons can enjoy their much-needed holidays and the vital travel industry, which contributes billions to the UK economy, survives. Unhindered movement could continue for travellers from “green” countries, while testing would unlock the rest of the world for travellers from “red” countries. 

It’s far from a return to the normal we all crave, but it would be far better than this untenable and unpredictable situation we find ourselves in.