Dr. Hannah White OBE is Deputy Director of the Institute for Government in London.
A return to mass tourism to or from the UK is unlikely for the foreseeable future — with international travel limited to essential business, educational and family traffic. As the UK government assesses the global impact of new, more transmissible Covid-19 variants, migration to and from the UK is being governed by a traffic light system. Despite a successful domestic vaccination program, Covid-19 restrictions, combined with post-Brexit changes in visa requirements for EU citizens coming to the UK to live or work, will continue to create uncertainty for UK mobility prospects well into 2022.
The traffic light system requires travelers to England to fulfil different testing and quarantine requirements according to whether they have traveled in or through countries with a red, amber, or green rating in the previous 10 days. Very similar rules have been introduced in Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. The traffic light ratings and requirements, which will be revised every three weeks by the Joint Biosecurity Centre, are the same whether or not an individual has been vaccinated. However there are some medical and compassionate exemptions from quarantine and job-based exemptions from testing and quarantine requirements.
Those who have been in a red list country or territory in the past 10 days may enter the UK only if they are British or Irish nationals or have residence rights in the UK. There are currently over 40 countries on the red list, including India, Pakistan, South Africa and many other African countries, and the UAE. The UK government has warned that a country or territory may be moved between lists without notice — as demonstrated by the sudden reclassification of Portugal from green to amber in early June — although domestically it has faced criticism for being too slow to move countries to the red list.
Travel to and from amber or red countries by UK nationals and residents is not prohibited, but the government has said it should be undertaken only if “strictly necessary”. Those returning from red list countries are required to quarantine in designated hotels for 10 full days, while those entering from amber list countries must quarantine at home or at another fixed location, with regular testing.
The first list of green countries — travelers from which are required only to have a pre-departure test and a PCR test on day two after arriving in the UK, with no quarantine requirement unless the result of the PCR test is positive — was announced in May. It included 12 countries and islands, including Australia, Israel, New Zealand, Portugal (including the Azores and Madeira), and Singapore. Early June saw Portugal removed from the green list, and on 24 June Madeira was added back, along with several other small-island nations. The government signaled that all the new green list countries apart from Malta were in danger of being moved onto the amber list by placing them, along with Israel, on a green ‘watch list’.
Of the latest green list countries, only Gibraltar, Iceland, and Israel are accepting British tourists (as is Portugal), with Iceland requiring unvaccinated travelers to quarantine and Israel requiring visitors to be vaccinated and part of an authorized tour group. The UK government has stated that it hopes to add more countries to the green list over time — rapid changes are not expected – but the situation is volatile.
With Covid-19 clearly set to become an endemic disease worldwide, health screening and records are likely to become a permanent feature of international travel as governments continue to manage the risks associated with the spread of infectious disease. For travelers from England and Wales, a Covid passport recording their vaccination history has been incorporated into an existing NHS app. As this does not currently include test results, separate test certificates are required. Scottish residents can download a vaccine status record from an online portal. Northern Ireland has not yet announced its plans.
Proposals from the EU Commission to lower the threshold for countries to be added to the EU’s very limited list of ‘green’ countries and institute fewer restrictions for vaccinated travellers, although with an ‘emergency brake’ to suspend travel if necessary, have been provisionally agreed.However, it remains open to individual governments of EU member states to impose testing and quarantine obligations on people arriving from third countries, including the UK, if transmission rates increase or variants of concern arise. Germany – for example - is only allowing visitors from the UK for urgent humanitarian reasons, and the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, argued in June that people coming from the UK should not be allowed to enter any EU country without quarantine.
Unvaccinated travelers from the UK are yet to benefit from the UK being on the EU’s white list of non-EU countries from which unvaccinated travelers may enter for non-essential reasons, although some countries — including Spain — have decided to allow British tourists to enter regardless of their vaccination status.
The UK government faces a tricky balance between domestic pressure to include more countries on the green list as the summer holiday season approaches, and the need for continued caution about Covid-19 transmission and the spread of new variants. Furthermore, if transmission increases in the UK, other countries may be less willing to accept UK travelers, whether they are on the green list or not. Meanwhile, ministers have admitted that travelers entering the UK are likely to face prolonged delays at airports caused by a combination of health checks and increased post-Brexit bureaucracy.
The post-Brexit cut-off for UK citizens who have emigrated to Latvia, Luxembourg, and Malta to apply for the right to remain was 30 June, but thousands had not yet applied by mid-June, leaving them at risk of losing access to employment, healthcare, pensions, property rental, and the ability to obtain a mortgage. France extended its deadline to 30 September, and the Netherlands has extended its deadline to 1 October. The 30 June deadline also applied to European Economic Area (EEA) nationals and their families who were residing in the UK by 31 December 2020 to apply to the EU Settlement Scheme. The Home Office has promised a flexible approach for those with ‘reasonable grounds’ for not having met the deadline, but also warned that EEA citizens who had not applied would be issued with a formal 28-day notice to apply or risk losing their rights to work, live, study, or access the National Health Service.
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