Travel is top of people’s minds as restrictions continue to ease. What do you want to know? Ask your Covid travel questions here.
Nothing quite beats the feeling of stepping out from an air conditioned plane into that hot holiday air. But for those clamouring for some sun or simply a change of scenery this summer, is it actually safe to travel abroad?
The UK government is introducing a risk-based traffic light system with countries labelled green, amber or red, and different rules set for returning travellers depending on the colour of their holiday destination.
Green destinations will be the ones deemed lowest risk (and therefore safest), and amber destinations are places with a moderate risk. The first set of green- listed destinations was announced by Downing Street on Friday: Ascension and Tristan da Cunha, Australia, Brunei, Falkland Islands, Faroe Islands, Gibraltar, Iceland, Israel, New Zealand, Portugal including Madeira and Azores, Saint Helena, Singapore, and South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands.
Red destinations are countries where cases will likely be high or variants of concern are circulating, with Turkey, the Maldives and Nepal added to the list. These destinations will be most heavily restricted – if you do travel, you’ll likely need to do a range of tests before and after visiting, as well as the potentially costly exercise of self-isolating in a hotel on your return.
But is it safe to go abroad?
The introduction of a traffic light system and easing of travel restrictions could be read as a big thumbs up to pack that suitcase of yours, but experts in viral transmission are a little more cautious.
“I don’t consider mass international travel to be desirable at the current time,” Professor Eleanor Riley, an immunologist and expert in infectious disease at the University of Edinburgh, tells HuffPost UK.
If you’re fully vaccinated by summer, overseas travel should not be a particular health risk, she acknowledges, but there are still some unknowns. For example, until we know more about how likely vaccinated people are to be a source of infection for others and to contribute to the spread of the virus and its variants of concern, those who have been jabbed could still pose a risk to others.
On top of that, many younger adults and children probably won’t be fully vaccinated by the peak of the summer holidays and will therefore still be at risk of becoming unwell and transmitting the virus to others, Prof Riley adds.
This is why she hopes most people won’t be travelling abroad purely for leisure purposes – “to enable essential travel to continue without unnecessarily raising the risk of triggering another wave of infections in the UK, or elsewhere.”
As well as health and safety concerns, she flags the “increased bureaucracy and cost” and significant risk that yours plans may be have to be changed at short notice due to flight rescheduling or changes in quarantine measures.
Local travel is “likely to be so much less stressful and more enjoyable”, she adds – and Professor Lawrence Young, a virologist from the University of Warwick, agrees.
He’s planning on a staycation in the UK this summer rather than holidaying abroad. “We’re doing so well here as a consequence of lockdown and the vaccine rollout, but I fear that this could all be jeopardised by bringing back virus variants from overseas,” he tells HuffPost UK.
Here are some things to think through before deciding to go abroad this year, given the Covid climate, and, if you do, how to travel as safely as possible.
1. Is your destination on the green list?
Green-listed countries are deemed by the government and their health experts to be lowest risk when it comes to circulation of the virus – so these should be top of your list if you’re keen to go abroad.
People coming back from green list destinations won’t need to self-isolate on their return. However they’ll need to take a pre-departure test at their holiday destination, then another PCR test on, or before, day two of being back in the UK.
It could make sense to book a short-notice or last-minute break rather than something far in advance. This is because if you book to visit a green-listed country in May, there’s no guarantee it’ll remain in this category later in the summer.
You can find up-to-date travel advice for specific countries here.
2. How are you getting there?
Not all modes of travel are equal when it comes to your risk of catching the virus. Driving your car to somewhere in north France, for example, would be less of a risk than an eight-hour flight to New York.
And it’s not just the mode of travel that could pose a transmission risk. Prof Young flags that waiting in airport queues in poorly ventilated spaces could be a concern. The Border Force union has suggested holidaymakers coming back to the UK could face queues of up to 10 hours this summer because of Covid-19 protocols, iNews reports. Lucy Moreton, professional officer at the union, said “there’s no way around the delays” and added, “people from all over the world will be mixing inside for a long time.”
A Sage summary suggests there is some increased risk of catching Covid when travelling on public transport. That said, there are things you can be doing – or thinking about – to reduce your risk. These include:
Can you travel at a quieter time? The fewer people on your chosen mode of transport, the better – so if you’re flying, think about whether it’s worth booking onto that midnight flight. And equally, consider how you’ll travel from the airport to your holiday accommodation.
Can you wear a face mask? These are mandatory on public transport and flights to and from the UK, so if you do end up beside someone, masks should minimise the risk of transmission – just make sure you’re both wearing them over your nose and mouth. Dr Stephen Griffin, associate professor and virologist at Leeds Institute of Medical Research, previously explained to HuffPost UK that masks are “critical” because they prevent the exhalation of a considerable proportion of the heavier droplets, as well as some of the aerosols. Experts broadly agree that surgical masks are more protective than cloth masks – and studies back this up.
Can you travel somewhere closer to the UK? The shorter the time spent travelling, the better. The longer you’re on a plane, coach or train, the higher the risk of catching any virus that might be lurking.
3. Where are you staying?
The type of holiday accommodation you choose will also influence your risk of catching Covid while you’re away. Some questions to consider, suggests Prof Young, include: “What measures have been put in place in your holiday accommodation? Will you be mixing with holidaymakers from other countries?”
Self-catering accommodation like Airbnbs, private cabins, holiday apartments and villas will most likely be lower risk than staying in hotels as you can keep to your household quite easily. Hostels with dormitory-style rooms are pretty high risk due to the fact you’d be staying in close contact with strangers.
“Aside from the levels of infection and vaccination in other countries, there are many pinch points associated with the practicalities of travel,” says Prof Young.
Mixing with people from many different countries where infection levels are high and vaccination levels low, and the lack of protective measures in crowded bars and restaurants in busy resorts “are all worrying factors,” he adds. If you can, eat outdoors, cook for yourself, or get takeaways.
4. Are you vaccinated?
People who are vaccinated with two doses of the coronavirus jab will obviously be in a much better position to travel this summer – and to do so relatively safely, compared to those who aren’t.
In the US, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends people delay travelling abroad until they are able to get fully vaccinated.
5. Do you have travel insurance?
It’s even more important to book travel insurance than usual – this is something the government actively recommends doing once you’ve planned a trip. You’ll want to double check the level of healthcare cover it includes, the travel disruption cover it includes, and any Covid related terms and conditions.
You might want to keep an eye out for policies that specifically cover trip cancellations, as well as emergency medical and repatriation costs.
6. Can you afford extra costs if your circumstances change?
It’s tempting to blow all our savings on a trip abroad this summer, given how long it’s been since we last had a foreign holiday, but be aware that you’ll need to factor in extras such as paying for PCR tests and possibly needing to quarantine in a UK hotel on your return if, for whatever reason, travel guidance changes while you’re abroad. The cost could range anywhere from £60-£100 for a single test to £1,750 to stay in a quarantine hotel.
It’s worth making sure you’ve cash set aside just in case.
7 tips for safer travel
Wash (or sanitise) hands frequently, particularly before and after eating
Wear face masks indoors and in crowded outdoor settings
Keep 2m from people outside your household if you can and avoid crowds
If you are in a crowded space, try to face away from people
Use contactless payments wherever possible
Don’t eat on public transport if you can help it
Take cleaning wipes on aircraft if you’re travelling for long periods of time. Give your armrests and tray tables a wipe before you use them.