Roadmap: the unanswered questions surrounding international travel

Annabel Fenwick-Elliott
·7-min read
travel - getty
travel - getty

Finally, we have a better idea of when we might be able to leave the country again: May 17 at the earliest, according to the Prime Minister’s four-stage roadmap.

Beyond that date, Boris Johnson was fairly vague on the details regarding international travel, but we can expect to know more on April 12, when the Government’s new ‘Travel Taskforce’ will produce its report on the matter.

The current raft of tough travel restrictions – including triple testing of passengers, quarantine hotels for arrivals from red list countries and 10-day self-isolation at home for other travellers – will remain in place until mid-May.

In the meantime, there are plenty of answered questions surrounding foreign travel. How long will quarantine hotels remain in place? Will vaccine passports hold the key to our freedom? Could the current ban at least be loosened before April, to allow for some non-essential travel?

We’ve combed through the Government’s 60-page road map out of lockdown and talked to the industry experts in search of more clarity.

Can I leave the country at the moment?

That’s a hard no, unless you have a ‘legally permitted reason’. For example, essential work that cannot be done from home or for education, a medical emergency or a bereavement.

In a further crackdown last month, Home Secretary Priti Patel said that anyone without a valid reason to leave the UK will be turned back and face fines of £200.

However, there has been confusion and conflict over who should be responsible for policing this. Many travellers who have departed the UK in the last month have said they weren’t asked their reason for travel at check-in. It appears to vary between airlines.

Regardless, the new guidance makes it clear that non-essential travel remains prohibited, at least until May 17. What’s more, anyone leaving the country will soon have a new form to submit.

The guidance states: “From 8 March, outbound travellers will be legally obliged to provide their reason for travel on the Declaration to Travel form.”

Could the non-essential travel ban be relaxed at all before May?

Interestingly, all mentions of the travel ban in stages 1 and 2 of the roadmap are specifically in relation to holidays. “Travelling abroad for holidays will still not be permitted” during Stage 1, it reads, and “International holidays will still be prohibited” in Stage 2.

Might this mean travel for other purposes could open up; for example visiting relatives or for business purposes? It’s not looking good.

A spokesperson for the Department of Transport told us: “There’ll be an update after the Global Travel Taskforce provides its recommendations in April but the rules on international travel will remain the same until at least May 17.”

What can we expect from this taskforce report in April?

Hopefully, a more solid plan as to when and how international travel will resume.

“The Global Travel Taskforce will report on 12 April with recommendations aimed at facilitating a return to international travel as soon as possible while still managing the risk from imported cases and Variants of Concern,” the document states.

“Following that, the Government will determine when international travel should resume, which will be no earlier than May 17.”

What will decide whether we open our borders on May 17?

Several factors will be taken into consideration before Boris Johnson agrees to re-open to international travel. In a nutshell, the number of ‘concerning’ Covid-19 variants still floating about, and the success both of our own vaccine program, and those of other countries.

The guidance explains: “This decision will be dependent on the global and domestic epidemiological picture, the prevalence and location of any Variants of Concern, the progress of vaccine rollouts here and abroad, and what more we have learned about the efficacy of vaccines on variants, and the impact on transmission, hospitalisation and deaths.”

Will vaccine passports be required to travel?

Possibly. Inoculation certificates that would qualify people to travel, both outbound and inbound, are being considered by the Government, but nothing is set in stone.

IATA, the international association of airlines that is in talks with the Government, claims its vaccination app, operating in a similar way to yellow fever certificates, could be ready to go live by the end of March.

The idea of 'vaccine passports' has been embraced by some countries, like the Seychelles, Hungary, Romania and Cyprus, keen to welcome back holidaymakers as soon as possible. Israel and Greece have already agreed to open a two-way travel corridor for vaccinated tourists in a bid to regenerate their struggling economies.

Indeed, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis has pushed the EU to adopt a common vaccination passport to help boost the tourism industry but Brussels has been hesitant, so far limiting its support to medical purposes only.

Opponents have flagged concerns about discrimination, as has the UK Government. Its roadmap acknowledges that it can “look into a system to allow vaccinated individuals to travel more freely internationally”, but also states: “Any such system will take time to implement. Introducing such a system also needs to be fair and not unduly disadvantage people who have yet to be offered - or gain access to - a vaccine.”

While we wait to see what the UK taskforce decides, here is a look at the countries already rolling out vaccine certificates.

Will be able to go on a foreign holiday with people outside our family or ‘support bubble’?

The Government hasn’t addressed this, but given international travel will be among the last freedoms to be reinstated, it’s unlikely (and logistically nigh-impossible) that rules will remain regarding how many companions we’ll be able to venture abroad with.

There will be tougher limits for UK holidays, which are slated to be permitted, in a limited form, from April 12. At this stage, only one household will be allowed to stay overnight somewhere in the UK, in ‘self-contained accommodation’.

By May 17, however, the soonest we'll be able to travel abroad for holidays according to the plan, groups of up to six people and two households will be allowed to meet indoors, hotels can reopen, celebrations including weddings can be attended by up to 30 guests, and other indoor events can host up to 1,000 people.

The Government has not before restricted the number of people we can travel abroad with.

What will happen to the red-list?

It’s likely to grow, meaning more inbound travellers will be faced with a 10-day hotel quarantine sentence. According to a senior airport source, “the red list is going to get longer before it gets shorter, which was disheartening to hear.” Other Government insiders have indicated in recent weeks that new countries could be added “within a few hours”. Both Spain and the US were reportedly being considered last week.

Here’s what the new document says: “The Government will act swiftly if evidence emerges that suggests more countries should be added to the red list. Likewise, if evidence emerges that vaccines deployed in the UK are sufficiently effective against Variants of Concern (or the situation in those countries changes) countries may also be removed.”

We know from Grant Shapps’ currently suspended travel corridor list’, however, that once a country is red-listed, it doesn’t come off easily.

How long will the hotel quarantine policy continue?

This we really don’t know, but we should have a better idea come April 12. Referring to the hotel quarantine policy, in addition to other restrictions on inbound travel at the moment, the document says that “these measures offer protection in the current context [...] and this regime enables the UK to manage the risk of importing new cases and new variants.”

However, it adds: “There will come a point where these restrictions will need to be superseded by a more facilitative model, making greater use of assets like the Test to Release Scheme, which allows arrivals to end isolation early if they pay for a private COVID-19 test. The Global Travel Taskforce’s report will be critical to this.”

It should be noted, though, that even during Step 4 (June 24 onwards), the document states: “In the short term, the Government will continue to protect the vaccine rollout and mitigate against the risk posed by imported variants.” That could include the continuation of hotel quarantine facilities.

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