WHEN Boris Johnson takes to the podium today to announce the easing of travel restrictions for England, the east coast of Scotland will be preparing for hail showers. Ah, the joys of summer. It’s lucky we didn’t cast our clouts prematurely.
This strange limbo between voting in elections and learning the results is bound to be filled with talk of sunnier, happier times – package holidays, city breaks, any kind of escape from the place dubbed “Plague Island” due to its disastrous response to the pandemic.
Boris Johnson insists his approach will be “cautious” and “sensible”, but the headline message will surely be that gloomy days are now behind us and we can safely venture forth for a well-earned foreign getaway. He’ll be following the data, of course. I’m pretty sure that’s what he told us the last time though, and we need no reminder of what happened next.
Of course, this time around we have more than 16 million people fully vaccinated and twice that number halfway there. But we’ve also only recently loosened countless domestic restrictions, allowing hard-hit businesses to take their first steps towards recovery, and we’re still seeing stubbornly high rates of Covid-19 infections in hot-spot areas like Moray.
The rest of the world, quite understandably, might be less enthusiastic to hear about UK plans for venturing forth (assuming a four-nations approach is adopted, which seems likely given the near-impossibility of enforcing different ones). Just because we might be legally permitted visit a particular destination, that doesn’t mean we’ll definitely be welcome there. Borders could be closed at any time and/or new entry criteria imposed. It wouldn’t be much fun to jet off somewhere only to be turned away at the border or, worse still, selected for Covid testing on arrival and found to be positive.
The traffic-light system will be based on the rates of Covid-19 in other countries and also their vaccination progress – but what it can’t take into account is the potential emergence of as-yet-unknown new variants. The head of the Covid-19 Genomics UK Consortium this week said she remained optimistic when asked the “million-dollar question” about the chances of a vaccine-resistant variant emerging, saying “we haven’t seen any hint of that at the moment”, but we’ve seen what happens when highly contagious new strains get access to people living in close quarters.
Don’t expect unvaccinated British young people to sit at home exercising caution when they could be in Spain exercising …. well, doing the kinds of things that young people like to do on holidays to Spain.
When travel restrictions were lifted last year, you’d have been forgiven for thinking – judging by the newspaper front pages – that fun in the sun was just a few clicks of a mouse away. But there was plenty of small print to accompany the optimistic headlines and quarantine requirements were subject to change at short notice. A cheap package holiday isn’t quite so cheap when you learn halfway through your break that you’ll need to fork out for a quarantine hotel once you get home (or face a £10,000 fine for breaking the rules).
Individual countries will have their own policies and entry requirements, including in some cases asking for proof of full vaccination, so some of those champing at the bit to get away may be tempted to take a gamble, hoping their second blue envelope arrives in good time. Others will be banking on their intended destination remaining on the green list, so they can avoid self-isolating on their return, or the amber one, so they are not required to quarantine.
In all cases, a positive Covid-19 test in the run-up to departure date would put the kibosh on any travel plans, with a refund unlikely to be forthcoming. Those who hastily book cheap deals may find themselves unable to get their money back even if they are blocked from entering their intended destination. Last year many people struggled to extract refunds from airlines and travel companies even when they were legally prevented from leaving their home country.
A cruel aspect of today’s cautious announcement will be that among those who most deserve a holiday right now are those essential but underpaid workers who can least afford the potential extra financial hit of quarantine or missed shifts. And spare a thought for the three million people excluded from government support packages who are glad just to be able to work again, especially those providing close-contact services.
Self-employed hairdressers and beauticians will be glad to have custom from those seeking highlights, waxes and fake tanning sessions before heading to the sun, but sensitivity will be required to avoid rubbing it in (the unfairness, not the tanning lotion). They spent the last year not knowing when they’d be able to work again and may have struggled to pay their bills. Expect the usual “going anywhere nice on your holidays?” chat to be a bit muted this time.