July 19 has been pegged as the new “freedom day” after Boris Johnson postponed the final stage of lockdown easing from June 21 – but what does the delay mean for international travel and the traffic light system?
Fewer than one in 200 people returning from amber countries are testing positive, according to the latest NHS Test and Trace data, but travel is unlikely to become a free-for-all anytime soon.
The traffic light system is here for the foreseeable, a Department of Transport spokesperson told HuffPost UK, but the idea is to “scale up” travel.
While it’s hoped more countries will be green-listed over the coming weeks, it’s likely some travel restrictions will remain in place after July 19.
The international travel policy, including the traffic light system, will be reviewed at three check-points, on June 28, July 31 and October 1. At these dates, ministers will review measures, taking account of the emerging evidence and domestic and international health picture.
“This could include, for example, considerations around the self-isolation, the managed quarantine service, and options at which differing measures or restrictions may apply for those with proof of vaccination,” the Global Travel Taskforce report explains.
Reports suggest the government is considering removing the quarantine period for those who have been double jabbed. An announcement is due on Thursday.
On a recent visit to a laboratory in Hertfordshire, Boris Johnson suggested travel is unlikely to resume as “normal” before 2022, though.
“I want to stress that this is going to be — whatever happens — a difficult year for travel,” he said. “There will be hassle, there will be delays, I am afraid, because the priority has got to be to keep the country safe and stop the virus coming back in.”
That’s what the politicians say, but when should travel resume? We asked the experts for their opinion.
When should restrictions on travel abroad be lifted?
Professor Paul Hunter, an expert in infectious diseases at the University of East Anglia, says there’s “no right or wrong answer for this” as it depends on multiple, changing factors.
“One of the big uncertainties is whether other countries will want to have us visit given we have higher numbers of the Delta variant compared to almost all other countries, though I suspect the US is catching up fast,” he tells HuffPost UK. “With things as they are at the moment, we are more of a risk to our neighbours than they are to us.”
Prof. Hunter’s personal opinion is that we should start allowing travel to green and amber countries if they will have us from July 19. “I would not even quarantine returning visitors from these countries. Why would you quarantine someone returning from a place with fewer cases and many fewer of the riskier Delta variant than we have at home?” he says.
“But if that is felt to be a step too far then the strategy of allowing people with two doses to avoid quarantine would be a suitable compromise. The fact that two doses are very good against any of the current variants is very reassuring.”
But – and it’s a big but – Prof. Hunter does stress that we need to monitor what is happening with the Delta variant and respond quickly if another variant comes along that looks likely to be a risk. “We do not want a repeat of the issues around the introduction of the Delta variant to the UK,” he says.
Dr Julian Tang, a clinical virologist and honorary associate professor of respiratory sciences at the University of Leicester, also says it’s hard to pinpoint a preferred date for “normal” travelling.
“This really depends on to what extent we are going to live with this virus - and accept a certain level of hospitalisations, long Covid, and deaths arising from it,” he says.
Most of the world is unvaccinated and non-immune – particularly countries that controlled the virus well to begin with and didn’t develop natural immunity, Dr Tang adds. Therefore, in an ideal world, you’d wait until “the whole world has been vaccinated” to resume normal travel.
“Even this is no guarantee as the virus is always ahead of any vaccine in production,” he says, adding that we need to take into account vaccine hesitancy and refusal in other countries as well as our own.
“The only thing controllable by the UK is the border control to international travellers, and the vaccination of their own citizens. Since children also travel a lot with their vaccinated parents – and if children remain susceptible and unvaccinated – they could also bring back any new variants, as children may play/mix with local children when they travel.”
If all UK citizens, and their children, are vaccinated, Dr Tang says “there is not much more we can do to reopen international travel”.
The government insists that no long term decisions have been made on travel and updates are based on the latest scientific data as new information emerges on the coronavirus variants.