AGAINST a backdrop of packed summer music festivals, football stadiums, and nightclubs, onerous international travel rules for UK citizens look bizarrely incongruous.
Updates on travel rules from the UK Government, which has been spearheading what has broadly been a joint four-nations approach this summer, are pored over and analysed for incremental easing or tightening. And we have of course also seen the relatively swift movement of some destinations to a more restrictive list.
With all the expense and bureaucracy of testing thrown in, it has no doubt been far harder for people to travel in recent months than last summer, even though so much of the population in the UK has now had two doses of vaccine.
Obviously, the whole situation must continue to reflect genuine public-health considerations. And we must not forget as things return to greater normality on so many fronts the importance of continuing to save lives amid the coronavirus pandemic.
However, the European Union moved relatively swiftly early in the summer to make it fairly straightforward for people who have been double-vaccinated to move between its member states, with sensible rules for children so that families can travel together with minimal hassle.
Of course, in spite of the big noise by ideologically blinkered Brexiters about the EU’s Covid-19 vaccination programme having got off to a slower start than that in the UK, this roll-out has been proceeding apace, which is a good thing for everyone.
It may therefore be a matter of frustration for many people in the UK who are desperate to go on holiday or have to travel for other reasons to observe the ease with which citizens of EU countries can travel safely between member states in the bloc. Especially given the claustrophobic and demoralising insularity which is such a dismally dominant force in Boris Johnson’s post-Brexit Britain.
Many people in the UK will have been put off international travel by the still-onerous requirements, with even people who have been double-vaccinated wishing to visit green-list destinations facing extensive and costly rules. Indeed “green list” could be viewed by many as a very rosy term, given the attendant hassle.
Holiday companies, airlines and airports have welcomed whatever easing there has been on international travel.
This is only natural. After all, a ban on non-essential international travel from the UK was only lifted on May 17, so we have come a long way since then.
However, at a time when consumer confidence is vital to the booking of overseas holidays, it has often looked as if many in the travel sector have been trying to put the bravest of faces on things.
Crucially, even travel on the simplest of package holidays from the UK to mainstream European destinations, whether on the green or amber list, continues to entail much difficulty, cost and uncertainty.
Obviously, some people will be prepared to jump through these hoops for a holiday abroad, especially given the grinding misery of the pandemic. And everyone in the international travel sector must do their utmost to remain upbeat.
With the reopening of nightclubs and the return of large-scale events, the extent to which international travel has found itself at the back of the queue in terms of a return to anything like normality becomes plainer by the day.
The sector is a huge employer and there are major concerns about what on earth will happen with Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s planned ending of the coronavirus job retention scheme this month.
This furlough support was put in place for companies and employees in sectors which could not operate at all or anything like normally because of coronavirus-related restrictions. The scheme has played a key part in warding off a far-greater spike in UK unemployment. It has also preserved supply-side capacity, which is so crucial to enabling recovery.
The fact of the matter is the international travel sector, from airports, ground-handling operators and airlines to holiday companies, remains unable to trade normally in the UK (and some other countries) because of coronavirus-related rules and restrictions, relating to quarantine, testing, passenger locator forms and so on. The bureaucracy of the locator forms will probably be taken on board happily enough by many travellers but the expense and uncertainty of testing, for example, will be a major inhibitor.
The tone of the Confederation of British Industry’s response to the UK Government’s latest update on international travel rules seemed to capture well the mood of many around these restrictions.
There appears to have been much spin at times from senior Conservative ranks around what have been tiny tweaks to the UK’s policies on international travel.
At the start of last month, drama around reported tensions within the UK Government over restrictions and hyped-up takes on subsequent developments seemed to create the impression for some that we had moved from a situation in which international travel was very difficult to an environment in which it was straightforward.
It was a letter from Mr Sunak to Prime Minister Boris Johnson reportedly pushing for holiday rules to be relaxed and claiming the UK was “out of step” with other countries on this front which really set the cat among the pigeons back then.
There were even signs that some people believed Mr Sunak had rescued the summer holiday season. There was talk of overseas holidays having been “saved”.
However, in reality, nothing much changed in terms of the actual restrictions. A seemingly mulled tightening with the creation of an “amber watchlist” did not transpire but, while the international travel sector might have been relieved about this, there was nothing to celebrate in terms of any game-changing easing of rules.
Responding on August 26 to the most recent UK Government update on international travel, CBI chief policy director Matthew Fell said: “The latest travel rule changes will bring little respite to the international travel industry. Public health must rightly be the first consideration, but the industry is left in a holding pattern while other nations with lower vaccination rates speed ahead.”
He added: “As the UK learns to live with the virus, changes will have to come. The Government must turn its attention to establishing a longer-term system for safe travel which is truly risk-based.
“This means focusing on individual vaccination status rather than country status, simplifying any lingering restrictions and ending PCR (polymerase chain reaction) test requirements for double-jabbed travellers and journeys to green-list countries.”
What has been clear from the outset is that a meaningful further easing of rules and restrictions will be necessary if the international travel sector in the UK is to begin its journey back to more normal times. Obviously, the same applies to companies and people operating in this sector in many other countries as well.
In a UK context, the CBI proposals would be a move in the right direction in this process. However, this would only be another leg on what has already been a long journey to a still-distant destination of normality. There looks to be a long road ahead, and it is crucial that easing of rules and restrictions occurs as soon as it is safe to do so. In the meantime, companies and employees in the international travel sector, unable to operate normally through no fault of their own, must continue to be supported by the UK taxpayer.
International success in vaccine development and rapid inoculation programmes in the UK and many other countries offer major support in the overseas travel sector’s journey back to normality. Public-health considerations will dictate the timing but, looking at rules for travel within the EU, you can see potential for a safe further easing of rules for UK travellers sooner rather than later, if there is a will to do it.