The Saturday View – Botched “Amber List” Messaging Sparks Fear Half Term Travel Chaos Could Bring New Covid Wave
As half-term arrives, millions of families will get the first chance for a holiday this year, but ministers have been urging people not to use this new freedom to travel abroad, despite having lifted an outright ban on doing so.
The “traffic light” system currently in place categorises countries based on their vaccination and infection rates, and the presence of any new variants of Covid-19. Portugal is the only mainstream holiday destination on the “green list” where passengers can travel without having to quarantine on return.
But packed planes to Spain, Greece, France and Italy suggest thousands have ignored guidance to only visit “amber” countries – which require 5-10 days of self-isolation on return – in an emergency. People returning from “red list” countries must undergo managed hotel quarantine.
With cases of the Indian variant doubling in a week, politicians, industry bodies and scientific experts are all calling for the government to ditch the “amber list” entirely and replace it with tight border restrictions, or risk the country’s move out of lockdown.
Labour’s shadow home secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds has criticised the government’s “terribly ambiguous messaging” and called for “red list” restrictions to now be applied to “amber” countries too.
“I just think the amber list, with its ambiguity in communication from the government, is just not workable,” he told PoliticsHome.
“It isn't clear, and that is the fundamental problem of this amber list, it is ambiguous, both by its very nature, and in the way it's been communicated,” he said.
“And perhaps one is the inevitable consequence of the other.”
Boris Johnson last week insisted he had been “clear” that countries on the amber list are “not somewhere where you should be going on holiday”.
But Mark Tanzer, chief executive of the tour operator group ABTA, said “it is illogical” for the government to tell people not to travel to a country when the traffic light system allows them to do so “in a risk-managed way”.
While France is imposing heavy restrictions on UK arrivals, Spain has dropped their requirement for a negative test upon arrival and all the major carriers have a host of flights stacked up next week to destinations such as Malaga, Lanzarote, Madrid, Ibiza and Majorca from airports around the UK.
Without any legal or financial barriers preventing people from travelling to those countries, thousands are expected to travel there in the coming week.
While families visiting “amber list” countries face children missing school as they self-isolate on return, it has been widely reported this week that in order to maintain compliance with travel rules, parents will not face a fine for keeping their kids at home after a holiday.
Professor Steven Reicher from St Andrews University, who advises the government’s emergency Sage committee, believes a politician saying “be careful” is redundant because “most people don't listen to politicians”.
“The minister says it once, but every time we pass a travel agent, or see an advert and you see planes flying, it sends a message that it’s ok to fly,” Reicher said.
“In the end the message that it's okay to fly, is far, far stronger than any caveats that might be put upon it.”
The Prime Minister and Home Secretary have repeatedly said during the pandemic the UK has "instituted one of the toughest border regimes in the world,” despite taking far longer than many countries to impose Covid restrictions on international travel.
Reicher believes the government has “painted itself into a corner” over allowing people to resume international travel.
"With the roadmap the mantra was data, not dates, but it very much became dates, not data, and once you do that people invest in this emotionally and eventually they book holidays,” he said.
“It becomes really difficult to back out.”
But in light of new Public Health England (PHE) data showing a dramatic rise in the Indian variant, backing out is precisely what Reicher thinks the government should now do on travel.
He also called the traffic light system “bizarre” and echoed wider criticism that it was confusing.
“It's an institutionalised system for bolting the stable door too late,” he said.
Johnson and the government have opposed revising the travel restrictions so far, as the PM tries to stick to his word that the unlocking plan would be “irreversible”.
But there is also concern that people could exploit loopholes in the system to avoid quarantine.
Last week, a woman who was unable to board a flight to Dublin due to an issue over the negative test she had shown instead travelled to Belfast and crossed into the Republic of Ireland that way.
“How many are going to fly into Gibraltar [which is on the green list] and cross into Spain?” Lucy Moreton from the Immigration Services Union said. “We don't know.”
“We're placing things on trust,” she continued. “Yes, sometimes there's a purpose for doing that. But mostly there isn’t, it's not a good idea, people lie.”
Thomas-Symonds said this is “exactly the fear” he has been having and is why he argued “for months” to get stronger border protections.
“They need to shift [amber] countries into the ‘red list’, and they need to do it now,” he added.