The one holiday where vaccine passports still rule

·6-min read
cruise holidays travel vaccine passports travel restrictions 2022 - Getty
cruise holidays travel vaccine passports travel restrictions 2022 - Getty

It would appear that Covid passports have had their day. The UK, having briefly required their use for access to larger events and venues, scrapped them back in February – along with the requirement for unvaccinated overseas arrivals to self-isolate.

Across the Channel the story is the same. The controversial passes – which prove their holder has been vaccinated, recovered from Covid, or had a recent negative test – have been phased out domestically, even in eager early adopters like France and Italy. What’s more, 25 European countries have scrapped all travel restrictions and only a handful are still banning unjabbed visitors. Head to the Continent in the coming weeks and your experience will probably resemble the pre-pandemic normal, devoid of red tape and QR codes.

But there’s one place where Covid passports still rule, where all unvaccinated over-11s are banned, where most adults need three jabs, and where – even then – costly testing represents a final hurdle.

Holidays at sea remain mired in some of the world’s strictest Covid restrictions, despite a shedding of the shackles almost everywhere else.

The rules of P&O Cruises are typical: all passengers aged 12 and above must have had two jabs, or, if they are aged 16 and above and their second dose was more than 270 days before, three. Everyone aged five and above must also provide evidence of at least one negative test – something that typically costs in the range of £30-£50 per person. This all applies even if the ship’s itinerary is limited to British waters, or only visiting destinations that have scrapped all their entry restrictions (a Norwegian fjords cruise, perhaps).

Some lines impose even tighter restrictions. Disney, for example, which is aimed squarely at families, requires everyone over the age of four to be fully vaccinated, and requires all those under the age of four to take a test (something P&O, among others, does not).

While the majority can meet the industry’s requirements, they make cruise holidays impossible for a significant number of Britons – probably in excess of 10 million people (as of May 11, 13.4 per cent of the UK’s over-11s have not had two jabs, while 31.6 per cent have not had three). Families seem particularly hard done by, with vaccination rates significantly lower among younger demographics for whom the risk posed by Covid is tiny.

A reader, Russ Fry, was among those caught out by the strict rules. He booked a P&O Cruises holiday for his family a year ago but only recently became aware that its protocols mean his unvaccinated daughter – who turns 12 just before their upcoming departure – won’t be allowed on board.

Disney Cruises, cruise holidays - Matt Stroshane
Disney Cruises, cruise holidays - Matt Stroshane

“I’ve suggested that she could take two tests instead, but P&O is refusing to use any discretion – it means we have to cancel the holiday,” he told Telegraph Travel. “It’s causing us a massive amount of disappointment as you’d guess after such a long time, and while those who make new bookings are more likely to understand the requirements it feels like we’ve had this sprung on us. I’m sure there will be a number of other families in the same boat, if you’ll pardon the pun.”

P&O does permit unvaccinated five-11 year olds on board, so long as they return two negative tests. But this is not an option for over-11s, nor can they present evidence of recovery from Covid as an alternative to vaccination.

A spokesperson for P&O Cruises said: “Our vaccine policy has been developed to ensure we comply with guidance and vaccination entry requirements from the multiple countries we visit on a variety of itineraries. It is also in place to protect the health and wellbeing of guests, crew and the communities we visit. We will continue to monitor any changes to current guidance and will adapt and evolve our policy accordingly.”

Its statement was echoed by Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), which represents the industry. A spokesperson said: “CLIA ocean-going cruise line members’ health and wellbeing policies continue to go above and beyond, in order to protect guests, crew and the destinations they visit. Cruise line protocols are constantly evolving to demonstrate the industry’s continued commitment to public health. These measures will further evolve as the global situation changes, and we will be guided by scientific experts and authorities as to when these changes should be implemented.”

There are numerous likely factors behind the cruise industry’s current unwillingness to ease its rules. The average age of a cruise passenger is around 50, while certain brands have an even older – and therefore more vulnerable to Covid – customer base (the average Holland America passenger, according to a pre-pandemic report, is 64; for Cunard the figure is 60; for Seabourn it’s 66; for Regent Seven Seas it’s 62).

Furthermore, a series of high-profile outbreaks at sea, beginning with Diamond Princess, which was quarantined in Tokyo in February 2020, and continuing in recent months when the omicron surge caused mayhem across the industry – in spite of on-board vaccine requirements – leaving scores of passengers stranded at sea, have put cruise ships under the spotlight like no other setting.

Such a strict stance is turning the cruise industry into an outlier, however, and pressure is growing for it to relax its rules.

A spokesperson for Big Brother Watch, the UK civil liberties group which has spent much of the last year campaigning against vaccine passports, said it was “unacceptable” that British companies were still demanding proof of vaccination. “The UK Government has now scrapped the domestic Covid pass and rescinded advice about its use,” it added. “The cruise industry ought to catch up and end the safety theatre of vaccine passport requirements. There are plenty more proportionate and inclusive ways cruise operators can keep people safe other than these discriminatory medical IDs.”

Greg Smith, the Conservative MP for Buckingham who sits on the Transport Committee and voted against the Government on vaccine passports in December, said: “The continuation of Covid restrictions and measures by some businesses, including the cruise industry, needs to stop.

“All Covid restrictions in the United Kingdom – and many other countries – have been lifted and I believe businesses should follow suit. If they continue to impose restrictions and requirements by choice they are simply harming themselves and driving away customers.”

Mr Smith’s final point is probably key. Should Covid restrictions start to harm the cruise industry’s bottom line by deterring a significant number of would-be passengers, their days will surely be numbered. But if the majority of cruisers continue to support its approach, the world’s oceans may well remain the last bastion of Covid cautiousness – even if it is to the detriment of many.

This article is kept updated with the latest information.

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