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Mobility Still Shrouded in Uncertainty, while Labor Shortages Mount



Dr. Hannah White OBE is Deputy Director of the Institute for Government in London.

Uncertainty continues to surround the prospects for UK mobility, with travel affected by practical issues and financial costs associated with post-Brexit changes in visa requirements as well as Covid-19 restrictions. Despite the UK government having relaxed requirements for entry, testing, and quarantine for vaccinated travelers from many countries, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has publicly stated that travel will not return to normal in 2021. While it is anticipated that the UK government will ease travel rules further later in October, restrictions to international movement look certain to continue to affect travelers to and from the UK well into 2022.

Despite new system, mobility to the UK remains limited

The UK government has scrapped its traffic light system for international travel, moving to a single, shorter red list of higher risk countries. This is the latest in a series of moves towards greater freedoms in mobility — although the right to leave the UK does not mean that UK travelers will necessarily be able to enter other countries.

Ongoing requirements for tests and quarantine for those vaccinated outside the UK and the absence of an approved international vaccination certification scheme continue to rule out visits for many travelers from red-list countries, limit short-term international travel for UK residents, and potentially cause issues for UK residents vaccinated in non-approved countries.

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Regardless of vaccination status, travelers to England from red-list countries still require a pre-departure test, PCR tests on days two and eight, and a ten-day stay in a managed quarantine hotel. UK citizens are advised not to travel to red-list countries.

Since 4 October, fully vaccinated travelers to England from all other countries, who complete their vaccination course at least 14 days before traveling, require only a test within two days of arriving in the UK, with no pre-departure test and no quarantine needed unless the two-day test result is positive. Travelers under the age of five are exempt from testing.

Vaccinations must have been received in one of eighteen countries and territories including Israel, Japan, Singapore, and South Korea. The same rules apply to those under the age of 18 who are resident in the UK or in one of the countries with approved vaccination programs. Unvaccinated travelers over the age of 18 or those vaccinated elsewhere must take a pre-departure test, perform PCR tests on day two and day eight, and quarantine at home or in private accommodation for ten days, with the option to pay for an additional private test on day five and leave self-isolation early if the result is negative.

All travelers must complete a passenger locator form before coming to England. The government has changed the rules on transit so that these apply to the country of departure rather than any transit countries.

Since 4 October, the Scottish government has similarly abolished its traffic light system but retained a requirement for a pre-departure test for all travelers from all countries, regardless of their vaccination status. Wales and Northern Ireland have both merged their green and amber lists of countries and scrapped pre-departure tests.

During the summer holiday season, there was widespread media coverage of complaints about the cost of PCR testing for UK citizens who choose to travel internationally. In England, the government has downgraded the number and changed the style of tests required. The second-day test for vaccinated travelers can be a cheaper lateral flow test rather than a PCR test, but must be purchased ahead of travel. But Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland have retained the requirement for the tests taken by those entering from abroad to be PCR tests.

UK residents can prove their Covid status online

In May, the NHS COVID Pass, a vaccine certificate for travel, was introduced in England and Wales through the existing general NHS app. The app confirms vaccination status from two weeks after a second vaccine dose or naturally acquired immunity, shown by a positive PCR test in the last six months. A paper alternative is also available. Northern Ireland has its own app-based travel certificate, while individuals vaccinated in Scotland can generate a digital QR code to confirm their vaccination status.

Post-Brexit migration rules now shaping travel to the UK

Following the expiry of the 30 June 2021 deadline for EU citizens and their family members living in the UK to apply for settled or pre-settled status, those who have not applied face losing their right to live and work in the UK. Late applications are still being accepted where people have “reasonable grounds” for failing to meet the deadline, but this leniency is likely to reduce over time. The number of eligible EU citizens who failed to apply by the deadline is unknown, and there remains a backlog of applications — the status of which is unresolved.

EU citizens with pre-settled status who subsequently wish to apply for settled status will need to prove five continuous years of residence in the UK. The Home Office has clarified that those absent from the UK for more than 12 months for reasons relating to Covid-19 may be able to retain their eligibility.

There has been extensive media coverage of labor shortages in the UK, attributed by many employers to post-Brexit changes in migration rules, with care homes, construction, farming, hospitality, retail, and truck driving all reporting soaring unmet demand for workers. The shortages have no doubt been exacerbated by international workers choosing to return home during the pandemic. 

Labor shortages have prompted an emergency visa program

The UK government initially advised businesses to address labor shortages by employing UK workers, including those expected to become unemployed in October following the ending of government support for furloughed employees, with ministers indicating that rules preventing EU workers from returning to fill vacant positions were not likely to change.

However, following severe fuel shortages across the UK caused by a lack of tanker drivers available to deliver petrol and diesel to filling stations, the government first established and then extended an emergency visa program for truck drivers. This program will allow 300 fuel drivers to come to the UK until March 2022, and up to 4,700 international food truck drivers to work in the UK from late October to the end of February. Around 200 military personnel have also been deployed to help to relieve fuel supply shortages.

Migrants expected from Hong Kong and Afghanistan 

Following Prime Minister Johnson’s offer of a route to citizenship to over 5 million Hong Kong citizens — in response to China’s imposition on the former British territory of a draconian national security law — the Home Office’s central estimate is that nearly 300,000 Hong Kong migrants may come to the UK over the next five years. And following the Taliban take-over of Afghanistan, the UK has committed to taking 8,000 Afghan refugees under its Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy and a total of 20,000 under its new Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme over the next five years.

UK enters new security pact with Australia and USA

The UK and the USA have made a security deal — Aukus — which will see them give Australia the technology to build nuclear-powered submarines and the three nations share cyber capabilities, artificial intelligence, and other undersea technologies. Aukus is being widely viewed as an effort to counter China’s influence in the contested South China Sea, and its announcement has been met with international criticism, particularly from France which had previously signed a lucrative submarine deal with Australia.

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