For many of us, standing in the deep end of this miserable tunnel, the distant flicker of hope on the horizon manifests as a summer holiday abroad.
Get your binoculars out, and you see yourself on a beach. The sun warms your skin, your feet dangle in the pool, perhaps you swim up to a bar and have a fumbled conversation about the tough times behind us and the freedom that lies ahead. Crickets vibrate in the bushes, a tropical bird chirrups overhead… I could go on.
But I won’t, because after a string of recent measures aimed at tightening our border restrictions, from this dank end of the tunnel, even our summer holidays appear in peril.
Today, the Government will say that arrivals from 22 countries must spend ten days in a ‘quarantine hotel’ – a policy expected to apply to the likes of Portugal, South Africa and the UAE. A handful of other nations, including Australia, Thailand, New Zealand, and most recently Ireland, have rolled out similar measures.
This follows a recent trend of tightened border restrictions in the UK, aimed to stop the spread of new variants. A couple of weeks ago, the Prime Minister introduced the new test before arrival policy; anyone arriving in the UK must provide proof of a negative Covid-19 result, taken up to 72 hours before travel. If you fail to do so, your airline won’t let you board the plane.
Then the Government scrapped all travel corridors, meaning everyone arriving into the UK must go into quarantine, without exception. Not that anyone should be going on holiday right now, anyway. The Government ruled against all non-essential travel when the country entered the third lockdown a few weeks ago. What counts as “essential” has been cut back, too, now excluding journalists and high-value business travellers among others.
So naturally, given the downtrodden state of the nation, we look at these rules in combination and think – sod it, we’re not going away this year, are we? And then when we hear the vaccine minister Nadhim Zahawi advising “not to book summer holidays”, as he proclaimed yesterday, and we say something a notch stronger than “sod it” and start Googling November availability for holiday rentals in Rhyl.
But if we observe the facts, and listen closely to what we’re being told, there is no reason to dismiss our chances of a summer getaway at this point in time.
Yes, the mood music from the Government is caution. But of course it is. The Prime Minister has been bitten so many times, after giving the country false hope (remember Christmas?), that he is naturally being supremely cautious when it comes to hinting when things might return to normal, and he has briefed the likes of Matt Hancock and Grant Shapps to do the same regarding holidays. Hancock said last week that he has booked a trip to Cornwall, and we too should set our sights on a ‘Great British Summer’.
When pressed on when borders would reopen, at last night’s Downing Street press briefing, the closest Boris Johnson came to offering hope was by saying “at a certain stage we will want to be getting things open,” sandwiched between words of caution on the rate of infection, the milestone of 100,000 deaths, and focus on the vaccination drive. It is frustrating for individuals, even more frustrating for businesses, but right now we should expect zero concrete promises on holidays. But we must try to keep a cool head when distinguishing the difference between the absence of promises and the absence of hope.
After this year our default setting is to catastrophize. And it is perfectly fair to assume any travel or border policy will be fumbled, when you consider Grant Shapps’s on/off travel corridors sparking shambolic races home last summer, a snail-paced travel taskforce (which has now, quietly, disbanded) and widespread failure to follow up on passenger locator forms.
Perhaps this is why in recent days I have seen a growing number of commentators extrapolate that, since we will soon be bussing arrivals from 22 ‘high-risk’ countries into quarantine hotels, this will naturally soon expand to the whole world and a blanket closed border policy. If we are working towards a “zero Covid policy”, with talk of protecting the nation against “unknown variants”, then we could end up in a position similar to New Zealand, effectively cutting ourselves off from the world, indefinitely.
But we are not New Zealand. We are a country that received 41 million visitors in 2019, contributing £28.4 billion to the economy. In the before times, London was one of the most important travel and business hubs in the world. Even after Brexit, we will continue to rely heavily on the international workforce – in 2021 we will allow in 30,000 EU and non-EU fruit and vegetable pickers to help with the harvest. It is absolutely in the Government’s interest to lay out, and action, a swift exit policy to ensure we do not squander our global position with prohibitive border restrictions.
Working on the travel desk, I frequently receive messages from friends about their holidays. Should they book? Should they cancel? Right now, my answer to them is this. It is January 27. The school summer holidays don’t begin for another six months. I repeat, six months. It is far too early to write off a trip overseas. Don’t forget that last year we were allowed off on overseas summer holidays (albeit to a limited list of countries), and we only emerged from the first lockdown on July 4.
If we keep vaccinating at the current rate, the vast majority of the adult population will have been inoculated by July. We may be ahead of the pack, along with the UAE, the Seychelles and Israel, but other top holiday destinations are following at a pace. Among the top 15 countries in the world in the race to vaccinate their population are Italy, Portugal and Spain – and the latter said last week it is planning to receive holidaymakers by the end of spring.
Some countries, including the Seychelles, Romania and Cyprus have said that they plan to welcome arrivals with a vaccine certificate – the Greek Prime Minister has also voiced his support for such a scheme, and is pressing for it to be applied across the EU. Elsewhere, Zurab Pololikashvili, the secretary general of the United Nations World Tourism Organization, called for the global adoption of vaccination passports to reopen travel. In the months ahead, as countries emerge from their latest (and hopefully, final) lockdown, a vaccine passport could well be the golden ticket for holidays abroad, with pre-departure testing procedures in place for those who have not been vaccinated yet.
I know plenty of people following the advice of Matt Hancock who set their sights on a UK holiday this summer – which is a perfectly sensible decision, given all the wonders of Great Britain. But many will still be holding out hope for that light at the end of the tunnel: a holiday abroad. For goodness sake – no, for sanity’s sake – let’s not extrapolate these temporarily tightened border restrictions, and cautious words from Government ministers, to mean our summer holidays are off.
Are you hoping to travel overseas this summer? Or will you take your holiday closer to home? Comment below to let us know your plans.