For the second Christmas in a row many people with friends and families abroad will be unable to spend time with them because trips into and out of Britain are too restricted, complicated and costly to be viable. This is bad for them and for important industries in London and the UK generally. In the coming week the “wise men” of the government need to come bearing three policy gifts to ensure that international travel doesn’t spend the whole of this winter in the stable.
This first gift should be to re-align the isolation rules for international travel with those for things we do at home. In recent months we have overcome the “pingdemic” of the summer and instead relied on a combination of vaccines and testing to restrain the virus. In response to the Omicron variant the government initially re-introduced blanket self-isolation for people who came into close contact with someone who was infected, even if they were fully vaccinated and testing negative. Meanwhile, people arriving in the country had to isolate until their test-on-arrival gave them the all-clear. So far, so consistent.
But now self-isolation for close contacts within the country has now been removed for the fully vaccinated, while the rules for people entering it are unchanged, regardless of vaccination status. This is an inconsistency that is also a needless drag on the economy as it deters visitors to this country and trips by people living here to others.
Omicron began overseas but is now dominant in the UK, meaning the risk of the virus being brought by anyone from abroad is no greater than from permitting people to go to their local pub. The government has partly recognised this by removing the countries where Omicron was first identified from its red list, but it should go further and dispense entirely with automatic self-isolation constraints on international travellers.
The second issue issue that is both preventing people from travelling to spend the holiday season with their families and depriving the London and wider UK tourism, hospitality, leisure and retail industries of much needed income is the sheer burden of the testing requirements. Even if you are fully vaccinated, a return trip to the winter markets in Brussels or Basel involves three or four separate tests. For a family weekend away, this could potentially double the total cost of your break.
The government has promised to review these rules at the beginning of January – too late for those important Christmas and New Year trips, but still an opportunity to start 2022 positively and logically. As with self-isolation, the simplest way to ease the off-putting testing burden is to treat international travel in the same way as domestic activities by letting people use the free NHS lateral flow tests to check for Covid infections instead of over-priced private PCR tests.
Travellers could take a pack of lateral flow kits with them to their destinations and use them before heading home and on arrival. With high quality air-filtration and full mask compliance, the planes or trains they will use for getting from A to B will provide considerably lower risk environments than a whole range of places they are allowed to go to and mix in at home.
Removing self-isolation and making travel tests free bear no resemblance to frankincense or myrrh, but the third and final gift really would be gold.
The government must stick to the bargain that has so far helped the economy to get through the pandemic with significantly less damage than it would otherwise have seen. It has made a start with the support offered to hospitality and leisure sectors, but there are many other hard-hit businesses the package doesn’t help. If there are more significant Covid restrictions to come, there must also be greater financial support all round. Failure to put this in place would risk the UK emerging from the Omicron winter without the businesses and jobs to be able to recover with the same optimism we saw during the autumn.
There is a case for swift action on international travel when new and unknown variants emerge elsewhere in the world. But once those variants are dominant here at home, strict border restrictions only serve to undermine the viability of important industries and the jobs within them. Omicron will dampen some celebrations this Christmas but it shouldn’t leave key sectors of the economy with a hangover long into the New Year.
On London strives to provide more of the kind of journalism the capital city needs. Become a supporter for £5 a month or £50 a year and receive an action-packed weekly newsletter and free entry to online events. Details here.