Let's Be Honest, The Travel Traffic Light System Isn't Working

Confusing colours. Expensive tests. Isn't it time we scrapped the system?

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The UK’s traffic light system has caused a lot of holidaymakers to see red. And amber. And amber plus. And green. Oh, and don’t forget the green watchlist.

The convoluted system has been criticised by members of the public and travel industry alike, not least because of the extra expense faced by travellers needing to buy multiple Covid tests.

Clive Dix, the former head of the UK vaccine task force, believes the current traffic light system is too complicated and excludes some travellers. With vaccination levels now high in the UK, he’s called for a simpler system to be rolled out.

“The current system probably means people who are slightly poorer in society struggle to be able to do any travel abroad and I think that’s unfair,” he told The Telegraph.

Currently, we have a four-category system – green, green watchlist, amber, and red. The list also previously included amber plus, a category just for France, and the government was also planning on introducing an amber watchlist, before a swift U-turn.

Dix would prefer to have a single list of countries of concern that would require quarantine for returning travellers, plus a single test to be taken upon return for arrivals from all other countries.

“It’s simple and it’s not too onerous,” he said. “It allows for people to have more freedom, basically.”

The travel traffic light system is not fit for purpose, critics say
The travel traffic light system is not fit for purpose, critics say

People travelling from green list countries, as well as fully vaccinated passengers coming from amber list countries, must currently pay for one Covid test before returning to the UK and another on day two of return. Travellers coming from amber list countries who have not been fully vaccinated must pay for an additional PCR test on day day eight, and must also quarantine for 10 days.

Emma Coulthurst, from holiday price comparison site TravelSupermarket, agrees that the travel system should be scrapped for something that’s easier to digest.

“Instead, you could just have a hotel quarantine category if absolutely needed for some countries,” she tells HuffPost UK. “But, ditch green and amber for the vaccinated and let those vaccinated travel. Ditch the double testing for green – just one of the two tests at the most. Only those who aren’t vaccinated would have to take the tests but, to ensure it is not an unfair financial hit, make sure the PCR tests are subsidised.”

Coulthurts thinks travellers need clear and transparent explanations tied to data points so holidaymakers can track how a country is doing in terms of its coronavirus rates. “People should be able to holiday without the fear of a country changing,” she says. “Any red changes should have strong warning so that those away can get back in time for a change and those due to holiday there have time to move their holiday date.”

As well as causing headaches for customers, the current system is proving tricky for the travel industry, which is already struggling to recover from pandemic losses.

“The UK is falling behind our European competitors and the opening up of international travel from the UK is progressing at a snail’s pace, making it extremely difficult for travel agents and tour operators to generate enough income to kickstart a recovery, which is desperately needed to protect jobs, businesses and livelihoods,” says Mark Tanzer, chief executive of ABTA, the travel association.

“Travel agents, tour operators and travel management companies haven’t had access to the same level of grant support as other industries yet their opportunity to trade their way out of the crisis remains severely restricted by the government. The government also needs to be transparent to the travelling public and the travel industry about the basis on which these decisions are made.”

So, will the traffic light system be scrapped? And if so, when?

HuffPost UK contacted the Department for Transport for a response to the criticisms and ask what’s next for international travel. A spokesperson said: “Our top priority is to protect public health – decisions on our traffic light system are kept under regular review and based on the latest risk assessment from the Joint Biosecurity Centre.”

“As set out in the Global Travel Taskforce, we are working for a safe return to international travel and a formal review of the system will take place at the next checkpoint no later than 1 October 2021.”

On the cost of Covid testing for travel, DfT pointed out that it is working with the industry and private providers to see how they can reduce the cost of Covid testing further, while ensuring travel is as safe as possible.

Several providers are charging around £100 for a day two and eight home testing package, and a day two PCR test for green arrivals is available for under £60, they said. There are also cheaper testing options for those who can attend specific testing sites. The government has also requested a review from the Competition and Markets Authority to stamp out any exploitative behaviour or poor provision in this market.

The traffic light system is reviewed every three weeks, with the next update expected on Wednesday August 25. We’ll have to wait until then to see if the rainbow system simplifies, or only gets more colourful.

Travel is the story of our summer. The rules (and traffic lights) are always changing, but one thing’s clear, we dream of being Anywhere But Here. This seasonal series offers you clear-headed travel advice, ideas-packed staycation guides, clever swaps and hacks, and a healthy dose of wanderlust.