By Francesca Hinton

Here it is! The long-awaited report from the UK government on restarting international travel was published this Friday, to a very much rebranded Department of Transport (do check out the Twitter launch video from the Secretary of State). So, what does it say? Do we have an insight into what the future of international travel will look like? And is the UK setting a leadership path to which we can expect other countries to follow suit?

Those who were hoping for a list of what countries will reopen for travel to the UK will be disappointed – and this isn’t something we can expect until “early May” according to the report. Instead we are presented with a “framework” for restarting international travel in a traffic light system. Essentially, green is go (but with caveats including a requirement for two tests), amber, a somewhat confusing middle point requiring self-isolating at home with testing, and red is enforced hotel quarantine.

The lack of clarity on the status of different countries will be disappointing to those not only hoping for a summer break this year, but the thousands of UK residents with family and friends living abroad. The Secretary of State in his address rightly highlights that over 27% of mothers in the UK were born overseas – just a small glimpse into the hardships that individuals must be facing in not being able to visit loved ones. Instead, we will have to wait until early May for an idea of what this list will look like, with some speculation that the list of countries might not even be released until a week before travel can potentially restart on 17th.

So, to get into the meat of the report, what are the key takeaways?

  • Expense will continue to be one of the greatest barriers facing travel – with the average cost of a PCR test in the UK at around £128 a country with even “green status” will significantly hinder any family trips. For a round trip based on a scenario where the destination country requires one test, this is still likely to come in around £300+ per person
  • Vaccination does not provide an exemption or an equivalence to testing despite much media speculation in the UK about “vaccine passports”. This is not to say this case will remain – the report includes set review dates where the government could choose to include this exemption once the majority of the UK population has been offered their jabs & more research on transmission has taken place. One to look out for.
  • Confidence needs to come from Government. Industry has taken significant steps on changing their bookings policy, meaning consumers can rebook with ease and little if no cost. But if lessons aren’t learnt from last year’s restart of travel where in the UK we saw countries changing status with less than 72 hours’ notice, this will be lost. Transparency on the criteria for a country’s status will be particularly key.
  • Reciprocity will be on government’s mind about next steps. For example, we’ve seen plenty of media speculation that Israel will be one of the first countries to secure “green” status given their success on vaccination rollout. Yet, at the time of writing, all foreign nationals who are not citizens or residents are banned from entry to the country. If this remains, would it still secure a place on the list?
  • It’s not just about aviation. The UK Government has made clear now that international cruise can restart alongside international travel. This is a crucial step for an industry that was effectively banned from operations, and will provide hope for nautical fans yet.  

So, it may seem that the new travel framework raises more questions than it solves. Whilst it’s not until early May when we will begin to see some of the crucial detail, it should be recognised that the UK is in many ways ahead of others on setting the blueprint for travel. The US notably is a country which has similarly made significant progress on vaccination, yet no timeline for the restart of international travel has yet been set. Where some European countries have begun to unilaterally lay out their plans for international travel (notably Cyprus, Greece, Portugal and Iceland) there is some divergence, such as the acceptance of vaccination as an alternative to mandatory testing. Whilst the UK Government has outlined its intention to work towards global standards in partnership with ICAO, this issue of divergence is likely to continue in the immediate term.

So, in sum, whilst we are yet to see the final detail on the UK Government’s plans, it should be recognised that direction of travel, is however broadly positive – the UK Government has a outlined a clear ambition through this report to restart international travel where it is compatible with public health objectives. Crucial to look out for will be the upcoming review dates – in June, July and October – where the framework will be reviewed on whether it can be adjusted. More to come….

Francesca is a Senior Consultant with Lexington, advising a range of infrastructure clients