Scotland overseas travel rules: Amber list move only small step to unpicking puzzle: Ian McConnell

WE are now nearly three weeks into the Scottish school holidays, and the extent to which hopes a year ago that summer 2021 might offer more straightforward overseas holiday possibilities have been dashed is now abundantly clear.

Past excitement around big summer getaways, and traditional press releases from airports in Scotland celebrating this buzz seem like a distant memory.

In everyday life too, the usual build-up for many people to a well-deserved holiday abroad, through a normal spring and early summer period, has been conspicuous by its absence this year.

It seems that in some workplaces too, the usual patterns have been eroded. Many people find themselves under huge pressure with increased workloads, as employers have cut numbers amid the pandemic, and with the boundaries between home life and their jobs having been blurred as they have pulled out all the stops to make things work. This intense effort is continuing through the summer.

In so many ways, these remain nothing like normal times.

By this time last year, many people had already, or were, putting often longstanding plans to travel abroad on hold amid the grim coronavirus pandemic.

Hopes were high that things would be easier this year.

However, it seems that in many ways things are far more difficult.

That is not to suggest in any way that travel can at this moment be allowed unfettered, as it was in pre-pandemic days, but rather just to highlight the practicalities for those considering going overseas this year.

We can see clearly from what happened when the Johnson Government was far too slow to introduce strict quarantine requirements for people arriving from India – as the South Asian nation’s Covid-19 cases spiralled upwards – the impact of making the wrong calls on overseas travel.

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Last summer, however, travellers from the UK could travel to many European destinations without having to organise and pay for coronavirus tests, with all that was required in many cases being the filling out of a passenger locator form.

There was the odd horror story of people being unable to return to the UK because they had contracted Covid-19, and could not over a protracted period get the negative test results required to exit quarantine in the countries they had been visiting. However, there were not that many such stories.

That said, many had to cancel holidays, and would in some cases have lost their money, because of rapidly changing exemption lists and Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office advice. And sometimes quarantine requirements were introduced swiftly.

Moreover, the reopening of travel last summer came quite late in the Scottish school holidays. The way timings worked out, things really only started getting moving when the English school holidays got under way.

Much has been made in recent days of the UK Government’s decision last week to allow people in England who are fully vaccinated not to have to quarantine on return from amber-list destinations. This applies from July 19.

This is obviously a step forward in terms of making going abroad on holiday a bit easier, and it was welcomed by the international travel industry.

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First Minister Nicola Sturgeon confirmed yesterday that there would also be a removal of this quarantine requirement for people in Scotland who have been fully vaccinated returning from amber-list countries.

There had been some frustration that Scotland had not immediately followed the Johnson administration’s lead last week, which highlighted the strength of feeling in an international travel sector laid low in Scotland and the UK as a whole, and in other countries, by this grim pandemic.

Jacqueline Dobson, president of Barrhead Travel, had said last Thursday: “We are extremely disappointed that the Scottish Government has not taken action today to open up travel for Scottish holidaymakers and those travelling to visit loved ones and family abroad. Delays to this critical announcement means that this summer season could effectively be lost for many Scottish couples and families for much-loved holidays abroad.”

Ms Dobson said yesterday: “We are really pleased to hear that Scotland will move in tandem with England’s plans to remove the need for fully vaccinated travellers to quarantine on their return from amber destinations. It is particularly encouraging to see this move in time for the last few weeks of the summer school holidays.”

However, she added: “At this crucial stage in recovery, it is vital that the UK continues to adopt a four-nations approach and we hope that future decisions about outbound travel are not as fragmented and disjointed as we have seen over this last year.”

Travel company, airline and Scottish airport chiefs had also in recent days urged Ms Sturgeon to follow the Johnson administration’s move on amber-list countries.

Package holiday giant TUI last week cited “uncertainty around travel” as it cancelled some July flights and holidays from UK airports to destinations including mainland Spain, Greece, and Croatia. This provided yet further confirmation, as if any were needed, of the challenges facing not only travellers but also holiday companies, airlines, airports and associated operations. TUI has, however, welcomed the new amber-list quarantine exemption for double-vaccinated travellers as it looks forward.

It is important to recognise that the amber-list relaxation will not be particularly useful for many, especially given that it is dependent on people having had two doses of a Covid-19 vaccine. Many younger adults will, at most, have had one dose. What is more, the expense and hassle of organising the required tests on departure and return, for green and amber-list destinations, remains firmly in place.

And travellers will have to be very aware of what their options are if they test positive for coronavirus before they leave, or while they are abroad.

You can see why the international travel industry has welcomed the amber-list quarantine exemption for those who have had two doses of vaccine, given the unpicking of the puzzle of how to get international travel returned to something even resembling normality is going to be a stage-by-stage process.

However, it is important to realise the limitations of what has been done.

Travel companies and airlines have been among the losers on the London Stock Exchange this week, with worries over Covid-19 at the forefront of stock market players’ minds.

Of course, all relaxations must depend on public-health considerations.

And things have been complicated further by the emergence of coronavirus variants, and in the UK by currently high rates of infection. By the time flights from the UK got going last summer, infection rates were relatively low, although the second wave was building in Europe.

Many lessons have been learned since last summer, and you can see the reasons for caution.

However, the big thing that is thankfully very different from last summer is the rapid rollout of vaccinations in the UK and in many other countries.

The challenge is how to translate this progress into a more widespread, but still safe, reopening of international travel, with many people naturally still being put off by the cost and uncertainty over having to take multiple tests, even for green-list destinations. The greater the size of the travelling party, the greater the potential for something to go awry. And there are of course the increased difficulties when arriving abroad and returning to the UK for those who have not had the opportunity to have two doses of vaccines, largely because of their relative youth.

This is all a very complex balancing act.

And it looks hugely challenging, in terms of squaring public-health considerations with enabling people to travel in a hassle-free and affordable way.

While challenging, however, it is crucial that government does as much as it possibly can, the prevailing public-health situation permitting, to make travelling a straightforward thing again for people. Travel operators must also ensure that they provide consumers with the required degree of flexibility and protection, if things go wrong.

And insurance companies must play their part in actually providing the cover travellers need in this somewhat dismal new world in which we find ourselves.

This will be important not only for an international travel sector which is a huge employer but also for the mental health of many people.

It looks still to be an excruciating journey ahead, and the puzzle will need to be unpicked piece by piece. Crucially, those making the decisions will need to ask themselves what needs to be done, within safe limits, to make overseas travel easy, affordable and carefree, like so much of it was before the spring of last year.

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