President Biden’s US travel ban was about politics, not health

THIS time of year, I’m usually in the US. I love autumn and America does autumn better than anywhere.

Now is just the right time for the last straggle of sunshine while the trees transform their leaves from thick, abundant green to flaming gold and red. It’s a perfect seasonal moment; warmth with impending crispness, colour before the impending dark – the best of all worlds.

“I was going home in October,” Jack Kerouac writes in On the Road, his novel of travelling across the United States, “Everybody goes home in October.”

America is not home but it is a beloved destination I have returned to often since a post-university road trip along Route 66. That opened the eyes, let me tell you.

We drove the highways listening to Willie Nelson and Fleetwood Mac, the only cassette tapes we could find in the first gas station we stopped at. An ideal, accidental soundtrack.

Last year I had plans to be in New Orleans, take a little look around Louisiana, maybe cruise along the Mississippi. This year was to be Seattle, finally making it to the original Starbucks on Pike Place to see what all the fuss is about.

But Donald Trump enforced the EU travel ban and holidays became the least of anyone’s worries. Families have been separated for nearly 18 months, partners kept apart and friends unable to meet – all due to a travel ban that made very little sense.

Europeans have been blocked from the US since March 14 last year, a travel ban imposed under the Trump administration but left to linger on under the new Biden term of office.

For much of that time, it seemed nonsensical to want to travel to the States for leisure purposes. High national covid-19 case numbers and rising anti-vaccination sentiment that saw an immunisation success story begin to fall behind other developed nations made a holiday seem hellishly silly.

It was a surprise when President Biden didn’t move to lift the ban, particularly when he came to Cornwall for the G7 summit and had been expected to do so then. It was a further dent in the cross-pond relationship when the policy didn’t change despite the UK ending its ban on Americans coming here.

The refusal of reciprocity was labelled “incomprehensible” by the director of the Europe Centre at the Atlantic Council, Benjamin Haddad.

When it was enforced, it made some sense, despite being criticised by the incumbent Joe Biden. But dragging it on for so long has been a bullish move with little to back it up. Other countries, such as Grenada, have far higher case rates that European countries and yet there was no ban on unvaccinated Grenadians but a ban on fully vaccinated Germans.

Grumblings had been increasing over the past few months with EU diplomats making noise about the situation and even senators making their displeasure known.

Trump caused ructions with his America First stance but President Biden was expected to improve transatlantic relations on taking office. Instead, he reinstated the travel ban earlier this year after the Donald Trump administration made to lift them.

There was little pushback due to covid rates at the time but as the months went on, patience was wearing thin. Families separated by the ban were infuriated at the sight of American holidaymakers sunning themselves overseas while grandparents still couldn’t meet with new grandchildren and partners were far apart.

Boris Johnson, on the eve of his trip to the White House this week, said he would use the visit to push for an end to the travel ban. The White House has swooped in first and yesterday announced an end to the ban.

Pundits had predicted that Biden might hold fast and keep the ban in place until 2022 when the midterm elections are due – but their predictions fortunately missed the mark and foreign travel will now reopen from November, just in time for Thanksgiving.

It will certainly be a time of gratitude for reunited families and friends. The US-UK flight market is worth £9 billion and has been operating at a quarter of its capacity. It may take some time for flights to reach pre-ban levels. Though of, course, it’s not desirable for environmental reasons for travel to reach its pre-pandemic heights without a meaningful assessment of how the aviation industry fits with carbon targets.

President Biden ran on a ticket of promising to sort out the covid nightmare in America and he had dragged out this travel ban in an attempt not to look soft on that promise. For an administration promising to follow the science, the new president has played politics rather than stick to that pledge.

The lifting of the ban is well overdue but very welcome – for business, trade and personal relationships. Finally. I’ll meet you in St Louis.

The Herald Scotland

The Herald Scotland

The Herald is a Scottish broadsheet newspaper founded in 1783. The Herald is the longest running national newspaper in the world and is the eighth oldest daily paper in the world. The title was simplified from The Glasgow Herald in 1992