It’s time to scrap all restrictions on overseas travel

The whole point of Covid travel restrictions – in the case of the UK, a strict two-week quarantine for arrivals from most of the world – is to reduce the risk of imported infections.

We didn’t bother with travel restrictions back in March, when they might have made a difference. Now, when they are as pointless as an ashtray on a motorbike, we seem obsessed with them. The travel corridors continue to come and go (goodbye Liechtenstein, hello Tenerife), there is talk of air bridges with Dubai and New York, and airport testing is slowly becoming reality. 

Unless you live in New Zealand, or some other far-flung island nation, Covid is now endemic. Even a vaccine, the Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser has confirmed, is unlikely to change that fact. Every country in the world is – at varying speeds, but with steely certainty – approaching the same destination: if not herd immunity, then a level of immunity that leaves the virus chugging along in the background alongside all the other endemic viruses we’ve been living with since the dawn of time. Sweden is getting there quicker than most, with minimal damage to its economy and collective mental health. The rest of us are pulling the plaster off slowly, ignoring other illnesses, sacrificing livelihoods, and generally causing as much collateral damage as possible. 

Our efforts to suppress Covid were always going to end in failure. The idea of ‘controlling’ this virus – the motto of our inept government – is a myth. Once it’s widespread, it cannot be stopped without the sort of draconian and permanent restrictions that would make life not worth living. We can kick the can down the road, as we did in the spring – causing huge suffering in the process – but it will always come back. 

This much is obvious when one looks at infection rates around Europe. Over the summer, when Covid faded across the continent (as is the case with all respiratory illnesses), the EU proposed a traffic light system to provide a bit of consistency when it comes to overseas travel. If a country reported more than 50 new infections per 100,000 inhabitants over a 14-day period, it would go on the red list, making it liable to face restrictions.

That threshold looks laughable now. As it stands, if these rules were used, only two countries – Norway (37.7 per 100,000) and Estonia (41.2) – would escape the red list. The rest of Europe is languishing deep behind enemy lines. Britain? 405.2. Spain? 394.2. France? 604.2. Netherlands? 674. 

Belgium, the country Matt Hancock said we should try to emulate when it comes to managing the ‘second wave’? Er, 1,301.2. Good one Matt.

Other countries that were said to be ‘controlling’ the virus with aplomb are watching their hard work go to waste. Italy? 283. Germany? 135.6. Cyprus? 178. It seems that stopping humans being human won’t stop a virus being a virus. 

At the very top of the charts is one of the heroes of the first wave: the Czech Republic. It shut its borders early, introduced one of the first mask mandates in Europe, and was lauded over the summer for “beating” Covid. Talk about famous last words. Now, with a lack of immunity almost certainly leaving its population more susceptible, it is one of the only countries in the world whose second wave is worthy of the name. Its 14-day case rate? A colossal 1,323.8. 

So, creaking under this weight of Covid infections (I hesitate to use the word “cases” when these high numbers are driven by mass testing of asymptomatic individuals), how should Europe transform its travel strategy?

Britain, to give it some credit, appears to have raised its quarantine threshold from 20 per 100,000 (over a seven-day period, rather than 14) to 100 per 100,000. This has meant that, while Italy has been bumped, Sweden, Germany and Cyprus remain on our travel corridors list. It would make a lot more sense to raise it to 230.8, our own seven-day infection rate, but at least we’re not copying Ireland, whose quarantine-free green list now consists of precisely zero destinations. 

Replacing quarantine with testing is an option, but it’s far from perfect. Dr John Lee, writing for Telegraph Travel last month, explained: “For coronavirus, tests have been rushed through to meet the perceived need, but there are many problems bubbling away. For example, false positives are probably 1 to 10% of results, meaning 2,500 to 25,000 incorrect results when you’re doing 250,000 tests a day. The PCR method being used is also critically sensitive, meaning that false positives/negatives can be cranked up or down by exactly how you do the test. Furthermore, many ‘positive’ tests seem to be ‘weak positives’, with viral loads 100 times lower than cases with serious illness, and are usually asymptomatic, with little risk of infectivity.

“So instituting such tests at borders, for an illness whose significance has been exaggerated, would simply be a recipe for chaos and unfairness. Many would be wrongly prevented from travelling, while others with the disease would go ahead. And even the meaning of genuinely positive tests remains unclear.”

A far better solution would be to simply lift restrictions entirely, and let travellers carry out their own risk assessments about where to go, as they’ve always done. The likes of Norway and Estonia (and, of course, New Zealand, which has painted itself into a corner and looks likely to retain border restrictions for years to come) might object, but for all those countries where Covid is now endemic and widespread, there is nothing to lose. 

After all, the idea that travelling abroad is more risky – Covid-wise – than staying at home, is a fallacy. According to the latest ONS report, “there is no longer a difference in the rate of infections between those who have travelled abroad and those who haven’t.” A week in Tuscany, lounging by the pool and visiting the local markets, is just as safe as a week in Tunbridge Wells, lounging on the sofa and visiting the local Waitrose. 

We’ve nothing to lose, but a lot to gain. An industry that employs hundreds of thousands of Britons, and hundreds of millions around the world, would be saved from oblivion. Those who rely on free-spending tourists to put food on the table, from hotel cleaners in Tahiti to safari guides in Tanzania, would be kept on the right side of the poverty line. And, equally importantly, we’d all have something – a precious holiday – to keep our spirits raised as winter looms.

From friends, colleagues and acquaintances, I’ve heard the same complaint in recent weeks: “I’ve nothing to look forward to.” No Saturday afternoons at the Lane, no West End shows, no raucous weddings, no family celebrations, and, with increasingly few exceptions, no holidays. It’s depressing and unsustainable. 

In our blind rush to tackle Covid, a disease that only poses a serious threat to a tiny proportion of our population, everyone’s quality of life has been sacrificed. This cannot go on, and travel – a vital part of many people’s quality of life, and a pursuit that need not increase the risk of spreading Covid – is the perfect place to start.

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