Some good and some disappointing news for travellers from England on Friday 17th September 2021. The latest announcement is certainly a fundamental reform of the hugely complicated, unpredictable and frustrating rules on overseas holidays which have made life so difficult over the summer and means that travel for the fully vaccinated has suddenly got cheaper and easier. But our choice of destinations has not increased anything like as much as was hoped for and we are still prey to expensive – and often dysfunctional – private testing companies and we will have to pay around £30 for a lateral flow test when we get home.
So has the government gone far enough, what do the changes mean in practice and what are the implications for those who can’t, or won’t, go for a jab?
PCR testing to be ended in six weeks
Until “later” in October, all returning travellers will continue to be required to take an expensive PCR test (£70 is a typical charge) on the second day after their arrival back in England. For the fully vaccinated, this will then be replaced by lateral flow test (which costs about £30) and only if that is positive would you need to self-isolate and take a PCR test. That will flag up if you had a variant of concern.
Despite the delay in this change, the new rules are primarily welcome for consumers because of the cost saving. But the change also exposes what a questionable requirement the PCR test was in the first place. Take my experience the other day. I took my day two test (which fell on a Sunday) and then had to send it off to be analysed. The sample would have arrived at the lab on Tuesday at the earliest. I didn’t get my result until Thursday. Had I been positive I would have been spreading the infection around for nearly a week. If I’d done a lateral flow test, I would have known on the Sunday that I was infectious and would have self-isolated immediately. Of course, lateral flow tests aren’t as accurate as PCR tests – they may miss some cases – but they can curtail the risks of spreading infection much more quickly.
The ending of PCR tests is something that the leading industry travel industry associations Abta and Aito have been calling for throughout the summer and they welcome the move. However, since some testing will still be required and given the controversy over charges and the reliability of testing companies, Which? is continuing to put pressure on the government to improve the system for consumers – some 80 providers have so far been warned about misleading prices. “Ministers must still implement the competition regulator’s recommendations about the PCR testing system to ensure affordable and reliable tests are available for those who need them,” said Which? Travel editor, Rory Boland.
Pre-departure tests to end
A negative lateral flow test, taken up to three days before your return home, will no longer be required from October 4 as long as you are fully vaccinated. This has been perhaps the most onerous and stressful requirement for returning to England. Not only did you have to arrange a time and place to take your test within the right time frame, you also had to pray it was negative. If a positive result flashed up on the test kit, you were faced with no choice but to pay for at least another 10 days' accommodation in your destination and, depending on local rules, were at risk of having to go into an isolation hotel. You couldn’t return home until a test came back negative.
From a purely psychological point of view, it was a major disincentive to travel and the removal will be universally welcomed by holidaymakers and the industry. It is yet to be decided whether this must be supervised in person or by video, but it will not be the free NHS lateral flow tests.
The new two-tier traffic light system
Also from October 4, the green and amber lists of the old traffic light system will be merged to form one category of “low-risk” countries, while the number of destinations on the red list will be reduced (see below). Traffic lights seemed like a good idea when they were first introduced. But the way they were managed by the DfT made the system completely dysfunctional. There were too many tweaks, and the introduction of additional tiers – of a green “watchlist” and an “amber plus” category – made the system unmanageable for the travel industry and even more confusing for travellers. And the complete lack of transparency as to how the decisions were made fundamentally undermined confidence in the system. Countries could go red at short notice no matter what their current status and it was impossible for anyone to guess what changes would happen when. Meanwhile, for the vaccinated, the difference between green and amber was non-existent.
Now at least, we have a simple stop-go system – though we are still vulnerable to sudden changes in the listings either by the DfT, or through a change in Foreign Office travel advice. And it seems we still won’t know exactly what data is being used and how the decisions are made.
Not surprisingly, the scrapping of the traffic lights has largely gone down well with the mainstream travel industry. Alan French, CEO at Thomas Cook, said that the simplification will enhance consumer confidence and boost holiday bookings later in the year and into 2022. However, for long-haul travellers and operators the red list is still a major problem to contend with, and one potential downside of the new two-tier system is that airlines and tour operators may row back on some of the flexible booking conditions which they have been offering to customers. That would be a negative step in uncertain times.
The world is opening up – but only slowly
The reduction of the red list from 62 countries to 54 is nothing like as radical as was hoped. Especially since quarantine rules for two of the key countries – Kenya and Sri Lanka – effectively rule them out as holiday destinations. However, the news that holidays to Egypt, the Maldives, Oman and Turkey can now restart is definitely a positive. The first two are important winter sun destinations (Oman is also a good winter choice) and though it is late in the season for holidays to Turkey, Istanbul is a great city to visit year round.
However, Justin Wateridge of Steppes Travel was hoping for much greater changes to the red list. “NHS data has showed that less than 1.5 per cent of red and amber list arrivals have tested positive. As The Telegraph has reported, more people caught Covid on staycations this summer than on foreign holidays. We need the government to open travel now… [and allow] travellers to make their own decisions based on risk.”
His views were echoed by Nick van Gruisen of the Ultimate Travel Company. “While relaxing the testing regime for travellers is a welcome step forward, the confidence of long-haul travellers will only return when the red list is cancelled or drastically reduced allowing for worldwide travel to the vast majority of countries.” In the meantime, everyone arriving back from a red zone destination – whether unvaccinated or vaccinated – will continue to face 10 days of hotel quarantine at a cost of up to £2,285 per adult.
What about the unvaccinated?
Until now, travellers who have not had both doses of a coronavirus vaccine must take a PCR test and are not required to self-isolate after arriving from a green list destination. The biggest surprise of the announcement is that all unvaccinated people will now have to take a day two and day eight test on arrival in England, as well as self-isolate at home for 10 days. They can pay extra for a day five test and be released from quarantine if they are negative. They will also have to continue to take a pre-departure lateral flow test, which must obviously be negative, before they are allowed back into the country. The tests will cost about £130 and the quarantine will obviously be a huge disincentive to travel.
What does the announcement mean for half-term holidays?
Half term for most schools is from October 23-31, so assuming day two PCR tests are replaced with lateral flow tests by then, families arriving home will make substantial savings on testing. A family of four will pay about £120 for day two lateral flow tests instead of £400 for the current requirements.
What happens next?
Reviews of the red list will continue to be announced by the DfT every three or four weeks and the system looks set to stay in place until the New Year. There is no guarantee however, that restrictions may not be tightened again if the pandemic worsens or a dangerous variant emerges.
And let’s not forget…
While the UK government has made travel more straightforward for vaccinated holidaymakers, it doesn’t have the power to require other countries to let us in and we still depend on the rules made in the destinations we want to visit. And we don’t necessarily look like the most attractive of guests. Many countries have now caught us up when it comes to vaccination programmes and our infection rates are still among the highest in Europe. Holland has only just decided to let us back in. Other countries may decide to keep us out.