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The travel correspondent of The Independent is never happier than when sipping a “dark & stormy” (rum and ginger beer) while peering through an eclipse-safe telescope into the depths of the universe.
On the evening of 10 June, though, he paused his galactic meanderings to answer your pressing travel issues live for an hour.
This is the compilation of the key questions and answers.
Traffic light changes
Q: What do you think the chances are of there being any changes at the next review on 24 June, and if there are to be any what do you think these could be?
A: It would be absurd for there not to be changes. But guessing what they might be is extremely tricky.
After all, ministers had assured us that a “green watchlist” could be deployed to avoid all the chaos surrounding holidays abroad in the summer of 2020, when countries were put on the quarantine list at short notice – triggering a rush back to the UK.
The plan was to give a week or two’s notice that the nation was showing troubling data and allow a decent window for adjusting plans. But then Portugal, which had seen a modest increase in cases, was moved straight from the green to the amber list.
The decision left those travellers, airlines and holiday firms who had mistakenly put their faith in the green watchlist feeling foolish and confused.
Furthermore, the decision not to move Malta from amber to green – despite compelling evidence that it should be on the lowest-risk register – suggests a very hard line is being taken at the heart of government. Unhelpfully, all I can say is that I am dreaming of a late-June escape to Slovakia or Albania.
Q: I am mainly interested in countries that are red moving to amber. Will there be changes?
A: The government will certainly not want to move the Indian subcontinent (Delta variant) or the Gulf (international hub status) from red to amber. But it may be that some African or Latin American nations are eased.
Q: Paul Charles wrote an article predicting that mainland Europe won’t be on green list until the end of July. Do you agree with that?
A: Paul has spent the past 15 months assiduously analysing the data, and therefore his comments deserve attention. Politicians who are in favour of tougher restrictions are generally supported by the public. A cynical political calculation might regard the damage wrought upon people’s hopes, dreams and livelihoods as unfortunate collateral for a gain in support.
Q: I am planning to travel to France via Eurotunnel on 22 July. My husband and I are fully jabbed and we’re travelling with our two young children. Do you think that France will still be amber at that stage? How great do you think the risk is that with rising cases of the Delta variant in this country, France will add the UK to its red list before then?
By 22 July there will have been two more opportunities for the government to move France from amber to green. But there is no indication at present that ministers will wish to do so. I think it most unlikely, though, that France will toughen up its rules. Unlike the UK, the French are very keen to start rescuing their inbound tourism industry.
Q: My family and I are booked to go to Corfu on 20 July until 6 August. Do you know where I can access the 14-day cases/100,000 statistic for the individual islands,. And in your learned opinion, would we be better off moving to August to stand a much better chance of Corfu being on the green list?
A: I follow A to Z Guides, which has regular updates of case numbers on the Greek islands – showing, for example, that 43 cases were recently confirmed on Crete compared with just 16 on Corfu. But since Crete has six times as many inhabitants as Corfu, it is doing relatively better. However, while I regularly study the numbers I do not ascribe particular powers to them. And I suggest you don’t torture yourself with peering through the data for individual islands: it is likely to be disregarded anyway.
As a reminder, Greece and almost everywhere else in Europe is on the “amber list,” requiring 10 days of self-isolation on return to the UK.
Nearby Turkey and Egypt are on the “red list,” with hotel quarantine mandatory of 11 nights mandatory for anyone arriving in the UK.
Among European countries, only Iceland and Gibraltar are on the green list and accessible.
The next decision days for switching the “traffic light” assignments are 24 June, 15 July and 5 August – the day before you are due to return. I think there is a vanishingly small chance that the green list will be significantly increased on 24 June. Since the government will have just postponed the planned domestic opening in the UK I predict it will ignore the data that indicates (for example) Malta should be on the green list – and will be a much safer place to be than the UK.
On 15 July Malta and some other islands may be added to the green list (possibly including a sprinkling of Greek isles), with an outside chance that Portugal could be readmitted.
But 5 August will be the big one. By then almost all adults will have had at least one jab, while infection rates across Europe will be far lower. I would be surprised if Corfu were not green-listed by then. If it makes the cut on 5 August but the change takes effect only a few days later, you might be in the awkward position of having to delay your return home.
Remember this is all speculation. But certainly, the later you travel this summer, the more likely it is that restrictions will be eased.
Q: We are booked to go to Gibraltar on the 27 June. What are the chances it will remain on the green list at the next review?
A: Extremely high. They say that if the Barbary monkeys on the Rock ever leave, then Gibraltar will cease to be British. I think the same might apply were Gibraltar ever to fall off the UK green list. The vaccination programme has been extremely successful and the British Overseas Territory has not experienced any problems from its new role as the most alluring foreign destination in the world for British holidaymakers.
Q: Could I have your thoughts on the risk of seeing European countries (France, Greece) being moved from amber to red? Worst-case scenario of course but after last week it seems anything is possible.
A: “Never say never” has, er, never been more appropriate than during the coronavirus pandemic. The Labour Party is urging the government to move all amber nations to the red list immediately. But once large-scale tourism begins to those key destinations, the possibility diminishes to almost zero – the systems in the UK couldn’t cope.
Q: Given that the government are so worried about the Delta variant being brought into the country by travellers returning from red or amber countries, do you think they will release the figures that their decisions are based on? It would be interesting to see exactly how many positive cases there are compared with those who have remained in the UK.
A: Transparency (and rationality) have not been especially visible in the many changes of policy by government regarding international travel. The travel industry has long demanded to see the full data on which decisions are made, without success.
Q: Do you think there will be travel for us Brits to France/Spain/Italy from late July/early August? Like Hana 2015, we are planning the Eurotunnel in August, driving to Spain via France.
I think it’s a pretty safe way to travel given that there’s no queuing in airports or busy flights, just a car with our own family bubble. Plenty of outdoor space when we arrive as we’ll be camping. But is it likely to happen?
A: I hope so. But please conduct a wider risk assessment than simply “what are our chances of contracting Covid?”
Flying to Spain is extremely safe; driving there through France brings significant risks.
Q: What do you think is the likelihood of Italy being changed to green by the end of August? My sister is getting married there and we are facing considerable costs for amber testing so any insight would be gratefully received.
A: By the end of August I predict Italy will be green with 90 per cent certainty. Also, the ludicrously complex and expensive testing regime for returning travellers to the UK may have been eased by then.
Q: Do you see France reaching green status with the same certainty by then too?
Q: Isn’t it becoming obvious that our government just wants us to spend our money at home this summer? Hence the ridiculous, politically motivated, U-turn on Portugal and keeping Malta on the amber list?
A: I have heard this theory advanced many times but I do not think it is correct. I imagine some in government are painfully aware of the immense damage suffered by businesses catering to incoming tourists.
Keeping all UK people at home will not rescue the UK inbound tourism industry: British people want different things than overseas visitors, aiming for coast and countryside rather than cities and heritage.
Q: What happens if you holiday in an “amber” country, test before you return and then don’t bother with the tests or quarantine upon your return?
Would the authorities track you down and fine you? And if so, would the courts uphold the fines?
A: As a reminder, the UK has strict rules for anybody coming in from any foreign country apart from Ireland. The great majority of nations are on the amber list, which requires arrivals to quarantine at home and take PCR Covid tests on or before day two and on or after day eight.
The legislation is absolutely clear: you must adhere to the self-isolation rules and complete the tests that you have booked and paid for.
The authorities are more concerned about lapses in quarantine than they are about failing to undergo the post-arrival tests. There is now quite an effort going into checking up on people who are required to be self-isolating, with regular telephone calls and occasional visits to ensure you are not outside of the place in which you promised to quarantine. (As a reminder, you obviously can’t go out to work – nor can you go shopping or walk the dog.)
Less attention is paid to whether you have completed the tests as required by the rules. Travellers “must on their arrival in England possess a testing package”. UK Border Force officials check the obligation – and, in any event, purchasing a package of two PCR tests is required to complete the passenger locator form in advance of a journey to the UK.
Breaching either rule triggers a fixed penalty of £1,000 for a first offence (I imagine repeat offenders are vanishingly rare.)
Since the requirements of the law and fines for non-compliance are perfectly clear, I cannot imagine that they could be effectively challenged in court. Of course you have a moral as well as a legal duty to adhere to the law.
Q: We’re looking for clarification on what testing we need entering Spain via ferry from France as vaccinated UK citizens. We have a trip booked at the end of June; UK to France via Eurotunnel then a ferry from Toulon to Menorca. The trip should be 72 hours door to door.
A: I predict you will need no outbound tests at all. But please check nearer the time of departure.
I haven’t been on the ferry you mention but it sounds a great alternative. Bon voyage.
Q: Any advice on whether it is better to book an antigen test at a clinic in the country you are travelling back to the UK from, or are the tests you order and take abroad with you and complete in your hotel room via video call better?
A: Booking a test with a competent local medical professional is a very safe way to meet the demand for a pre-departure test before travelling to the UK. Note that it must be in English, Spanish or French.
I know that some people have encountered problems with the acceptability of self-administered, video-supervised tests.
Q: If you’re travelling to Monaco by flying to Nice and then getting a taxi to Monaco, do you still need to self-isolate for seven days as per French rules (if you’re not double jabbed) or is a negative PCR test sufficient, as per Monaco rules?
A: My sense – just a guess – would be that a straightforward transfer to Monaco would not be a problem. France has got very fluid rules at the moment – I find that checking with the excellent French embassy English language website is highly advisable before you travel.
Alternatively, I bet any concierge of any fancy hotel in Monaco will tell you by phone what the French/Nice airport policy. Give them a call and then let me know.
My other suggestion: why waste a fortune on a taxi when there are great buses direct from the airport to Monaco frequently and cheaply?
Q: What is the logic for having to pay for day 2 and day 8 tests ?
A: To reduce the risk of importing cases (and possibly variants) of coronavirus, the government insists you take a test on or before day two of your arrival back in the UK, and another on day eight or later. They hope that this will enable them to control and monitor the spread of infection. The aim of demanding payment upfront is so that you go through with the transaction and the tests.
Another compelling reason to go through with the tests: as mentioned above, you face a £1,000 fixed penalty if you fail to comply.
Q: Am I right in saying that at present you don’t need a pre-departure covid test in the UK when flying to Gibraltar?
A: Absolutely correct. A free test within 24 hours of arrival is all you need. A lot of people are wasting money (and time, and stress) when travelling to Gibraltar and other destinations by paying for unnecessary pre-departure tests.
Always check with the destination what it demands in terms of Covid protocols.
If you want peace of mind that you are not infected and present no risk to others, then take a free NHS lateral flow test before you leave. But note it has no legal status.
Q: I booked a ticket to see my family in Italy next 31 July, hoping things will change. As far as I read, European countries are going to launch a “Green Pass” which will allow people fully vaccinated, provided negative test proof or proof of a negative test after contracting the virus, to enjoy their holidays without the need to self quarantine.
Since it applies to EU countries only, I wonder if UK will also be included within the rest of the countries to resume holidays? I haven’t read anything about it but to be fair, what’s the point to be fully vaccinated if on my return I would still have to quarantine like the rest of people who selfishly refused to have the jabs?
A: I urge anybody who is going to Europe this summer not to fret too much about proof of vaccination. The NHS is working to provide the necessary evidence, and I sense that most European holiday destinations will be fairly relaxed in any case.
The UK shows no sign of giving any consideration to vaccination status, which is bad news for those of us lucky enough to have had two jabs – as well as for prospective overseas visitors to the UK, and the businesses that would like to provide for them.
Q: With the announcement on a transatlantic taskforce, in your opinion, what do you think are the chances for a visit to California on 17 August without that pesky quarantine on either side?
A: Don’t hold your breath. Just a couple of days ago President Biden was warning about the Delta variant spreading through the UK, and I doubt that he is in a huge hurry to facilitate your holidays. Sorry I can’t be more optimistic.
Q: I’m a disabled traveller. My partner and I are meant to be travelling to Orlando at the end of August and into September for a fortnight. I had been fairly confident thinking an announcement would be made at the start of the G7 essentially opening borders. But am now concerned about the taskforce announcement. How would you estimate our chances?
Also, once an agreement for travel is in place do you think it could easily change like we have seen in Portugal?
“Wheeling 2 Disney”
A: Sadly, yours is one of many holidays where there is simply no clarity on the near future. I would say 50:50.
The abrupt change from green to amber of Portugal shows that nothing can be ruled out when ministers make their decisions on international travel. But I wonder if the ferocious response from the travel industry may give pause for thought next time?
Q: Any thoughts if Canada will open up by August 2021. We are booked to travel at the end of August for a family wedding. Thanks
A: Sadly I can see no indication that access to Canada will get any easier in the next two months, or that the country will be put on the UK green list. I hope I’m being unnecessarily pessimistic.
Foreign Office advice
Q: Do you know when the Foreign Office will next review their own advice? They have selected certain Greek Islands as safe, yet other smaller ones have few or no cases and are apparently fully vaccinated.
A: I don’t have time to ask the Foreign Office for a statement, but I can tell you what they would almost certainly say: “We keep our travel advice under constant review.”
Q: I have cancelled trips to Egypt and Turkey this year. I now have a holiday booked to Tenerife for the end of August. My reasoning: I thought it’s safe after reading the Foreign Office advice stating no essential travel is banned for Spain and Balearics but excluding the Canary Islands. Does that mean the Canaries will go green soon?
A: Sadly there are no certainties at all. The government’s enduring policy seems to be that only the foolish and the desperate will want to go abroad this summer. But that mood may start to change as August approaches. I hope you will be fine; late August looks promising. In any event, what the Foreign Office says has no bearing on ministers’ traffic light changes.