There is a certain humour in perusing the “green” list of destinations where British tourists can, in theory, take summer holidays without quarantining at home for 10 days on return. There are the Falkland Islands and South Georgia, 8,000 miles away in the south Atlantic or, for the more adventurous, Antarctica. Australia and New Zealand are on the list, but closed to visitors. A few more popular destinations — the Balearic Islands and Barbados — were added this week, but most European countries are on the “amber” list, meaning enforced quarantine. Britons deserve better than these restrictive, confused and poorly-explained rules.
It was not supposed to be this way. When a UK grandmother last December became the first person in the world to receive the BioNTech/Pfizer jab in a mass inoculation effort, Covid-19 vaccines held out the prospect of a return to some normality within months. The UK has since inoculated a bigger portion of its population than any other large economy.
Boris Johnson’s government justifies its “traffic light” rules by the need to prevent dangerous variants from entering Britain and undermining the success of the vaccination programme. It dented its argument with its own delay in putting India on the high-risk “red list” — which many MPs believe resulted from the prime minister’s desire to start trade talks with Delhi — allowing enough time for the Delta variant first identified in the subcontinent to take hold in the UK. Britons are paying a price through the resulting surge in infections — though thankfully not, so far, hospitalisations and deaths — which has postponed the final lifting of social distancing rules until July 19.
Maintaining a “red” list of countries with worrying mutant strains or severe outbreaks is still justified — provided the government swiftly moves countries on to the list when risks emerge. But many “amber” countries have no known variants of concern beyond the Delta strain, and lower infection levels than Britain.
Several airlines are now suing the government over what they rightly call opaque and contradictory rules. The travel industry held a day of action last week to highlight the losses and lay-offs caused. Consumers face soaring costs for “staycations”, meanwhile, because of the domestic capacity squeeze.
The government can do little to prevent other countries from restricting arrivals from Britain due to the surge of the Delta variant if they so choose. It should, however, maximise UK residents’ chances of holidaying abroad by accelerating moves to allow double-vaccinated adults — and under-18 families — to visit amber list countries without quarantine. Johnson said last week the government would give details of such plans, but only “later in the summer”.
Even if plans for “immunity passports” for domestic use are not ready, there is no reason why the government should not rapidly adopt a system similar to the EU Digital Covid Certificate. From July 1, this will facilitate travel for residents of EU states, providing digital proof that they have either been vaccinated against Covid-19, recovered from it, or received a negative test result. NHS apps that already display vaccine records could surely be adapted accordingly.
Britons have shown a willingness to submit to social distancing rules that has surprised the government — even though they now know some officials, including the UK health secretary, were not always doing the same. They have taken up vaccines in huge numbers. Westminster and devolved governments should be doing everything sensible and practicable to help them to take a well-earned break.