Are we facing a Groundhog Day for travel? The emergence of what seems to be a more transmissible variant of Covid-19 is certainly bad news for our holiday plans and perhaps for life in general. It has sinister echoes of what was happening exactly a year ago. That was when the Alpha (Kent) variant hit the UK hard and led to the ill-fated tier system, a second lockdown in November, and even tighter restrictions in January.
Overseas holidays and leisure travel were either difficult or impossible between November 2020 and May 2021 and the situation was made worse by the emergence of the even more infections Delta variant in India at the beginning of the year. It saw off Alpha and, by August, it had spread to over 163 countries.
There are major differences between then and now, of course. In the UK, the government was widely criticised for being slow to restrict travel to and from India in reaction to the Delta variant. By the time those restrictions were in place, community transmission in this country was already well established. This time around it has reacted almost immediately and, depressing though it is to see the red list back in operation, it will surely buy some time while we learn more about the new variant. The fact that other countries are reacting with similar speed is also encouraging.
However, the battle against Delta also happened against the background of the vaccination roll out which – it turned out – does offer good protection against the variant. We don’t know whether that will be the case with the latest one to emerge.
So, we are now facing a waiting game. This may be a false alarm, or we may be seeing the beginnings of a return to the sort of nightmare we endured last winter. As well as the revival of the red list, it seems likely that the travel testing regime might be tightened up again – though perhaps in stages, according to developments. The most likely first step would be the re-introduction of Day 2 PCR (rather than lateral flow) tests for returning passengers, perhaps followed by pre-departure and/or Day 8 tests. That would both bump up costs for holidaymakers and re-introduce a psychological barrier to travel.
We will also have to face up again to the recurring problem that we are vulnerable not just to what the UK government says, but to the reactions elsewhere. If, for example, the US or the EU decide that the new version of the virus is too dangerous, they might simply close their borders to overseas visitors.
We shouldn’t give up just yet, though we will have to be patient. There are still key unknowns which it may take scientists weeks to resolve. We don’t know how quickly it will spread and whether international action will keep it in check – though the fact that there have already been cases in Hong Kong and Israel is not encouraging. And as well as not knowing how effective existing vaccines will be, there is no information at all on how deadly the new variant is.
Meanwhile, as travellers, we can take comfort in the flexibility and protection which travel companies are still offering on most bookings. Our best hope is that this is a false alarm. But there is no getting away with the fact that, even if it is, we have perhaps been too ready to assume that this pandemic is nearing its end. There may still be a long and bumpy road ahead of us.