The British government has finally rolled out its plans to authorize travel and dispense with quarantine requirements for travellers coming back from 59 countries and 14 overseas territories starting on July 10nd. The approach, which represents an abrupt U-turn from its initial plan of establishing ‘air bridges’ with a more limited number of partner countries, will now see international destinations ranked from green to red on a ‘traffic light’ system, with green representing ‘safe’ countries. The back-and-forth has nonetheless put the UK in an embarrassing diplomatic situation while failing to assuage the economic sectors most desperate for a return to touristic normalcy.
Representatives of the travel industry have lambasted the Government’s circuitous approach to policies which could make or break the fortunes of the British travel, tourism, and hospitality sectors, with confusion over the state of travel in the months ahead wasting precious time these industries need to attract new bookings and rebound from the economic crisis sparked by the pandemic. Internal disputes between London and the devolved administrations, especially in Scotland, have led Transport Secretary Grant Shapps to place the blame for delays on Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP, but it now appears inevitable the ‘British’ travel regime will in reality apply to England only.
Looking beyond the UK, the unilateral nature of the decision itself means Britons may not even be admitted by many of the countries they are supposedly now permitted to travel to. While the Government’s list is expected to include most countries in the European Union, the EU distinctly left the UK off its own list of ‘safe’ third countries. The terms of the Brexit transition period nonetheless mean British travellers are still supposed to be treated like European citizens until the end of December, and are thus exempted – at least for now – from bans on external entry.
Despite that, EU member states such as Greece have already made clear they are not comfortable letting in visitors from the UK as of yet. Downing Street insinuated it would respond to the prevarication in Athens by leaving Greece off its list of ‘green’ countries, but the final list does indeed include Greece, sandwiched between Germany and Greenland.
Though it is not difficult to see why Greek premier Kyriakos Mitsotakis wouldn’t want to jeopardize one of the EU’s best performances in managing Covid-19 by prematurely admitting travellers from Europe’s worst-affected country, the confused nature of the discourse surrounding ‘air bridge’ negotiations has left thousands of British holidaymakers unsure whether they would be able to travel to Greece in the first half of July out in the cold.
Even among Commonwealth countries, destinations like New Zealand are also keeping their UK-facing doors closed. There as well, the rationale is easy to comprehend. Whereas Jacinda Ardern’s government had succeeded in practically eradicating the coronavirus outbreak by June, a pair of travellers coming from the UK ended up becoming the country’s first positive cases in weeks.
Errors of omission
There are other, deeper issues with the list of safe countries which call into question the thinking behind its choices. While the Department for Transport has greenlit to travel to most of Europe, it has conspicuously left off many of the best-performing countries in Asia.
One of the most glaring examples is the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which has far outperformed the UK itself when it comes for testing for and isolating cases of COVID-19. The UAE has in fact achieved the highest testing rate per capita of any country. With three million COVID-19 tests conducted by mid-June, the UAE’s testing rate now stands at well over 300,000 tests for every million residents.
This may help explain why the UAE has only see 316 deaths for over 49,000 total identified cases. The country’s burgeoning tech sector is actively working with partners in the UK on new screening methods that leverage artificial intelligence (AI) to combat the virus, while the Emirati “Alhosn” mobile application is one of the most sophisticated examples of a Bluetooth-powered contact tracing app currently in use. The UK, for its part, has conducted less than half as many tests at the UAE per capita, while the Government has had to abandon its plans for a contact tracing solution and will instead adopt one provided by American tech giants Apple and Google.
Nor is the UAE the only COVID-19 success story to be ignored by the Department for Transport list. Sri Lanka, for example, has earned global plaudits for its aggressive response to the virus, with just over 2,000 total confirmed cases and only 11 deaths. Sri Lanka responded to the public health crisis with an early and concerted lockdown, a level of testing that far exceeded its neighbours in South Asia, an effective public health system that ensures equitable access to most of the population, and a rigorous system of public health surveillance built up over the course of previous outbreaks (including the country’s own contact tracing app, “COVID Shield”).
As a result, Colombo was widely expected to feature on the list of safe countries, but it has been notably left off the final version. Also missing are Malaysia and Singapore, both of whom have far outperformed their European counterparts. Malaysia has seen just 121 COVID-linked deaths since the start of the pandemic, whereas Singapore’s death toll of 26 is remarkable the over 44,000 cases the country has handled. By comparison, Turkey, which is expected to appear on the ‘green’ list, has already had over 5,200 deaths from the virus, with well over a thousand new cases identified each day.
Acknowledging American isolation
For all the controversy surrounding the Government’s approach to restarting travel, Downing Street did take one important decision by refusing to include the United States in its list of safe countries.
While America has handled the virus more poorly than just about any other industrialized country and is now bearing the horrifying consequences, that both the European Union and the UK would bar travel from their close ally – and the world’s most richest country – speaks to a level of international isolation under the Trump administration that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago. Given the warmth of ties between Boris Johnson’s government and its counterparts in Washington, and the influence America exerts over the course of Brexit, shutting Americans out was not necessarily an easy call.
Whether or not the Government’s attempt to restart international travel will work out ultimately depends on the course of the epidemic in the UK itself. For the time being, the curve of new cases has mercifully gone into decline, with fewer than a thousand cases being identified each day. If that trend continues, the current struggles will be seen as a temporary hurdle. If the current reopening causes them to spike again, however, or if the UK gives a green light to travel to and from countries who lack the capacity to accurately report data on their own outbreaks, the country may ultimately find itself back in crisis mode.