Follow the science on travel bans? I’m darned if I can

·3-min read
Welcome sight: Victoria, the city on the Maltese island of Gozo (Simon Calder)
Welcome sight: Victoria, the city on the Maltese island of Gozo (Simon Calder)

Simon Calder, also known as The Man Who Pays His Way, has been writing about travel for The Independent since 1994. In his weekly opinion column, he explores a key travel issue – and what it means for you.

How much more damage can a government inflict on its travel industry? Thursday evening saw the chaotic revelation of the new green list addition (singular: Malta). A handful of other plausible destinations have been assigned to the no-quarantine category with the caveat that they might have self-isolation imposed at any moment: the “green watchlist”.

Friday morning found the transport secretary, Grant Shapps, telling British holidaymakers they cannot travel to “amber list” countries such as France.

“People wouldn’t be able to travel there for holidays,” he told LBC Radio. That was an interesting assertion, since anyone can leave the UK for any purpose they wish – subject, of course, to the destination admitting them.

An hour later, on the BBC Today programme, Mr Shapps explained how the “traffic light” categories were decided. It’s simple, said the transport secretary: science.

“There’s no circumstance in which there is not a scientific basis and I encourage people to look at the way that the Joint Biosecurity Centre (JBC) do this by looking at the information that they have, in fact, put on the website.”

I took up his kind invitation for one specific purpose: to understand why the Greek island of Zakynthos remains on the “amber list”. The first case of coronavirus for some time was reported on Thursday, but adjusted for population on the same day the UK had 10 times as many new infections.

A destination can make the quarantine-free green list if coronavirus rates, “variants of concern” and numbers of connecting international passengers are low, while vaccine roll-out, reliability of data and genomic sequencing capability are high.

Clearly the island also known as Zante fell short on at least one of those, but regrettably the JBC declines to provide any public information. Perhaps the Greek islands lack the genomic sequencing capability of Pitcairn.

The scientific basis for postponing any decision on vaccination allowing travellers to swerve quarantine is also baffling.

“Our intention is that later in the summer, arrivals who are fully vaccinated will not have to quarantine when travelling from amber list countries,” says the government. No earlier than 19 July, the transport secretary added.

Some European countries have invited British visitors to provide proof of having had both jabs and avoid self-isolation and/or testing since February. There must be a scientific explanation for the UK knowing better, but I’m darned if I can find it.

The airlines, ferry firms and holiday companies that desperately want to take people abroad are desolate – as are the many businesses dependent on inbound tourism because it appears that the government has decided to write off the entire summer for vaccinated visitors to these shores.

Only UK residents will qualify initially for jabs replacing quarantine. Vaccinated foreigners will be told they must still self-isolate. Guess what: they will go instead to one of the dozens of nations that welcome their low-risk presence.

So this is the way travel lockdown ends: not with a bang, but with a whimper. I hope the same does not apply to the remnants of what was, just two years ago, the world’s finest travel industry.

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