The true cost of the travel red list – and why it’s pointless anyway

·14-min read
omicron red list travel true cost testing centre heathrow - Getty
omicron red list travel true cost testing centre heathrow - Getty

Last December, our family broke the law so that my granny could spend her last Christmas on Earth with the ones she loved. My aunt, who under any other circumstances wouldn’t so much as run a stop sign in an emergency, agonised for days about the decision before finally caving to her 87-year-old mother’s pleadings and bundling her into the car from her dark flat in London to my home in the Essex countryside on Christmas Eve, terrified at any moment that they would stopped, arrested and fined.

Thank goodness they made it, because my granny, who died three months later from complications of a stroke, got to spend that unforgettable day with her family, warm, happy and well-fed – exactly where she wanted to be, having carefully weighed up the risks – instead of being all alone in the same four walls that had imprisoned her for the past nine months.

Why am I telling this story now? Because for anyone with relatives, friends or partners abroad, this continues to be the reality to this day. Those draconian and so-called ‘temporary’ restrictions on who we were permitted to see within the UK last Christmas have remained heavy-handed for all those who must travel overseas in order to spend time with their nearest and dearest.

An estimated 5.5m British people live permanently abroad; almost everyone you know will have at least one family member and several foreign-based friends. Is it right that nearly two years after Covid-19 first reared its ugly head, all these millions of people – the vast majority of whom have since done as they were told and got vaccinated – should still be geographically estranged from those they love? Or does that amount to cruel and unusual punishment in the face of a threat that is minimal to most, now more than ever?

Whatever your view, our Government’s re-introduction of the travel red list, and the punitively pricey tests now required for people to leave or enter the country, represent an attack, yet again, upon a great number of people, the economy at large (nearly 10 per cent of our GDP is generated by tourism, and more than 2.6 million jobs depend on it), not to mention those of all the other countries it affects (the 1.5 million South Africans who rely on tourism to survive saw the sector lose £44 million in the first 48 hours of the latest travel ban).

It is too early still, as we batten down the hatches once more, to count the number of lives the omicron variant will claim – so far, the global figure after several weeks is zero – but what we can do is tot up the non-refundable cost of the travel restrictions. Off we go…

The cost of hotel quarantine

Anyone unfortunate enough to have been caught out by the hasty return of the UK’s red list will this week find themselves facing a 10-day quarantine hotel stint at the eye-watering cost of up to £2,285.

Travellers entering hotel quarantine - JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP
Travellers entering hotel quarantine - JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP

Just ask Withnail and I star Richard E Grant, who was tweeting his experience over the weekend, stating: “I went to southern Africa to visit my 90-year-old mother and got caught. It took over a week and many cancelled flights to finally get home, for which I am incredibly grateful.

“I understand that there are security costs in the hotel and you’ve got to pay for two Covid tests, but £228 a day to receive 3 meals a day of this very poor standard, in a supposed 4* Holiday Inn hotel, beggars belief.”

These draconian measures are not even effective at keeping the virus out, never mind the fact that omicron is already spreading in every region of Britain.

In Australia, the delta variant blasted through the nation’s strict two-week hotel quarantine system, and omicron has squeezed in too. And this week it was reported in Hong Kong that two double-vaccinated arrivals who had both tested negative before departure had exchanged the virus in Hong Kong without once leaving their quarantine hotel rooms (except when opening their doors to collect food).

There is little sign of the red list being shelved. In fact, the UK is “rapidly expanding” the number of available quarantine hotel rooms, the Department of Health and Social Care has announced. A spokesperson said: “We have doubled the number of hotel rooms available from Monday and will continue to increase availability on a daily basis.”

The cost of testing

Gone are the days when the jabs were touted as a triumphant replacement to the dreaded nose swab. Alas, the science very clearly points to the fact that the vaccines don’t prevent transmission and that continued testing remains the only way to weed out the infected.

You’d think, given that the Government is nevertheless paying GPs £15 a pop to get even more needles into arms that Covid tests would at least be free for everyone regardless. And they are, if you have just come back from a football match, a rave, a pub quiz, an office party, or even a walk around the block. No questions asked, you can saunter into any chemist across the country and emerge with a ten-pack of free swab kits.

What you can’t do is go abroad, even to a place with far lower Covid rates than in Britain, and then return without being overcharged for these measly tests by vulture companies that flog you a code for your PLF form.

Lord Tyrie, an ex-chairman of the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), told The Telegraph this week in response to the return of both the pre-arrival test and the Day 2 PCR requirements: “Consumers are going to be thrown back into the hands of substandard, overpriced and unreliable testing over the Christmas period. It's back to the dreadful experience of previous months for many thousands of consumers. Some would call them cowboys.”

Indeed, while some companies on the Government’s approved list advertise tests for £1 when in reality they charge more than £100, the average price for PCR tests in the UK is closer to £80; compared with under £15 for Italy and Cyprus and under £40 for France, Germany and Belgium. Some would call this daylight robbery.

Julia Lo Bue Said, CEO of the Advantage Travel Partnership, thinks tests for leaving or entering the country should be free altogether. “The travel industry has faced the harshest of restrictions of any other economic sector in this country,” she tells us. “The lead up to January is a really important time for the travel industry as it gears up for what is traditionally a peak selling time. No company can trade through to recovery with its hands tied behind its back.

“The Government should not be penalising travellers, instead it should enable them to move in a manner which supports public health measures by providing free pre-departure and day two tests as well as specific industry support.”

The cost on public trust

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps let the public down yet again last week. Days after saying the Government would not be bringing back pre-arrival testing for all entrants to the UK because it did not want to “kill off the travel sector without knowing that you need to", he did just that. It was an unfortunate choice of words, implying when he then made the U-turn both that he would indeed be "killing off" the industry and that doing so was entirely necessary.

This simply isn’t true. No nation's travel restrictions stopped the delta variant from dominating globally. Not in Australasia, which has the strictest border measures anywhere, or in Mexico, which has remained open to tourists for the majority of the crisis.

Sydney Harbour - Yiran An/iStockphoto
Sydney Harbour - Yiran An/iStockphoto

Former British Airways boss Willie Walsh, who now leads airline industry body IATA, told BBC Radio 4 last week: “It’s clear that these measures have been completely ineffective in the past but impose huge hardship on people who are trying to connect with family and friends and clearly massive financial damage to the tourism and airline industry.”

The omicron variant, which appears to be more virulent even than delta, although seemingly much milder, will become the dominant strain of Covid in the UK “within weeks", according to Professor Paul Hunter, from the school of medicine at the University of East Anglia. He told BBC on Monday: “Once the infection is spreading within a country, then border restrictions don't really add anything. We've known that long before Covid. This has been knowledge that we've had for decades, if not centuries, to be honest.”

In its repeated use of blunt, damaging restrictions on the public that categorically doesn’t solve the problem in the first place, the Government is playing an elaborate, risky game of the boy who cried wolf. Beyond Covid, and should a pathogen come along that really does warrant drastic action, our leaders will surely struggle to get their guidance taken seriously.

The cost to the UK’s economy

Nearly 10 per cent of the UK’s GDP consists of tourism, and right up until the pandemic hit it represented our fastest-growing sector for employment, accounting for nearly 12 per cent of all jobs, having taken over from the financial services (8.9%) and banking (3.4%) in 2010.

Yet no industry can count more casualties as a result of Covid-related restrictions. When you take into account all the hotels, B&Bs, restaurants and pubs that serve visitors both domestic and international, hospitality employees made up 25 per cent of all furloughed workers in Britain last year.

Following a summer of reopenings, things were finally looking up as the busy festive period approached. Now, irrespective of the fact more than 80 per cent of us have been fully vaccinated and that hospitalisations remain reassuringly low, panic over omicron has, according to Lo Bue, “eradicated confidence and sent the hospitality industry back to the starting blocks... again.”

And for what? Even former Prime Minister Theresa May, who always liked to play it safe, said to the House of Commons on Monday: “The early indications of omicron are that it is more transmissible but potentially leads to less serious illness than other variants. I understand that would be the normal progress of a virus. Variants will continue to appear year after year.

“When is the Government going to accept that learning to live with Covid, which we will all have to do, means we will almost certainly have an annual vaccine and that we cannot respond to new variants by stopping and starting sectors of our economy, which leads to businesses going under and jobs being lost?”

The damage is already being done. With curbs on inbound visitors and Christmas parties being cancelled left, right and centre, the number of people dining out across Britain has fallen to the lowest level since the reopening of indoor hospitality, according to restaurant industry figures, and UK insolvencies jumped more than 30 per cent in the last quarter, reports chartered accountants UHY Hacker Young.

The cost to developing nations

Perhaps the most loathsome aspect of the West's response to this latest variant has been to heap punishment upon the people of South Africa and Botswana, whose scientists found it.

David Frost, CEO of SATSA, which represents South Africa’s tourism industry, tells Telegraph Travel: “We’ve seen millions of holidays cancelled as we approach the all-important Christmas period. The 1.5 million South Africans who rely on tourism for their livelihood saw the sector lose £44 million in the first 48 hours of the travel ban, which could rise to £1.2 billion if it continues.

“The impact of these ill-advised travel bans is catastrophic for an industry that has already been battling to survive for the past 20 months. Essentially, South Africa and its tourism sector is being punished for its advanced genomic sequencing and its transparency.”

Frost surmises: “We can only hope that science will prevail and that countries will reverse the travel bans shortly. The World Health Organization and scientists continue to highlight that travel bans are not an effective measure to deal with the spread of Covid. What has happened in effect is that the world has shot the messenger for doing its job well.”

Professor Paul Hunter concurs, adding: “One of the problems with travel restrictions like this is that it then de-motivates other countries to actually be open about their own situations for fear of what they would see as economic sanctions.”

Chris McIntyre, Managing Director of Expert Africa, tells us: “Our partners in Africa are aghast at what has happened. Instead of the jingoistic response of pulling up Britain’s drawbridge, the UK Government needs to join the dots. We already have hundreds of cases of Omicron in the UK, and it is these which will primarily drive community transmission. Using targeted testing for incoming travellers to catch those cases which might be imported makes sense, but a travel ban with quarantine is an unnecessary and very damaging over-reaction.

“The dearth of tourism is hitting some of the poorest communities around the globe, and all because our Governments aren’t able to explain the science behind keeping the borders open to their voters.”

Still, there is no sign of sense prevailing. Despite the omicron variant having been found in more than 40 countries, including the US, Netherlands, Hong Kong, Germany, Israel and Australia, most countries’ travel restrictions – including Britain’s – focus solely on Africa.

These travel bans were “meant always as a time-limited measure", one senior EU official informed Reuters on Monday (we've heard that one before), adding, however, that there was no plan at the moment to lift them: "We are not yet working in that direction."

The UK, meanwhile, has just added Nigeria to its red list; a move the Nigerian high commissioner Sarafa Tunji Isola told BBC Radio 4's Today programme on Monday amounted to “travel apartheid”. You can see why. Nigeria has thus far reported three omicron cases, compared to more than 300 in the UK, 38 in Portugal, and 32 in Denmark.

James Wilson, Marketing Director at Botswana-owned Desert & Delta Safaris, tells Telegraph Travel: “Tourism in Botswana accounts for over 15 per cent of our GDP and this crisis brought the travel and tourism sector to its knees. We have received over half a million pounds in cancellations for the Christmas and New Year period and received a number of cancellation requests for 2022 as the media and Government spread fear and gloom amongst the people.

“Half of our management in the camps are women and when one considers the families and children of staff employed within our company, this goes beyond 400 people but the livelihoods of thousands of citizens.

He adds: “Evidence supported by scientists and as stated by President of Botswana Dr Masisi clearly points to the fact that those who tested positive for the new variant had travelled from overseas. indicating that it is most likely the variant did not originate in Southern Africa, but was rather discovered here. This is partly due to the very sophisticated laboratories in South Africa that have been tirelessly working with WHO and the global community in developing research to help control the pandemic. If the variant was discovered in the USA or Europe would the UK have immediately added them to the red-list?”

Rhino conservation Covid - jacobeukman/iStockphoto
Rhino conservation Covid - jacobeukman/iStockphoto

Africa’s Eden Tourism Association, which represents lodges across Namibia, Botswana, Zambia and Zimbabwe, also points to the irreversible threat these restrictions are having on wildlife.

The group’s CEO Jillian Blackbeard, tells us: “What’s overlooked in this devastating blow to tourism is that the safari industry supports vital boots on the ground for conservation work across the Southern African landscape. Our capacity to support community and conservation initiatives is now being removed or very seriously curtailed. Conservation efforts are in real danger with an ongoing impact on communities, wildlife, and the wildlife estates.”

Russell Binks, lodge manager at Tswalu Kalahari Reserve in South Africa weighs in, stating: “It’s an understatement to mention that our travel industry is in a crisis that will have consequences for years to come. In the safari context, the incremental conservation gains achieved over the years could be eroded unless we remain focused and committed to our long-term vision of preserving our wilderness regions for the next generation.”

Do you think the UK Government was justified in reinstating the red list for African countries? Or should we drop this policy in favour of free testing? Let us know in the comments box below.

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