Yesterday’s announcement by the Transport Secretary, Grant Shapps, of a more regional approach to the quarantine rules for travellers is a welcome development. Now, at last, a country’s islands can be classified differently from mainland destinations. If only the change wasn’t so long overdue, hadn’t come so late in the season and didn’t have the incredibly confusing side-effect of increasing the blatant inconsistencies in policy between the home nations.
This confusion over the different rules for arrivals in Scotland, Wales, England and Northern Ireland is reaching ridiculous levels. For example, Wales currently has six Greek islands on its red list, whereas – following Shapp’s policy change – England has seven. And they are a different selection. Fly back into Cardiff and you have to isolate if you have visited Mykonos, Zakynthos, Lesvos, Paros, Antiparos or Crete. Fly back into nearby Bristol and the list also includes Tinos, Serifos and Santorini, but not Paros and Antiparos. Meanwhile, the Scots have made quarantine compulsory for arrivals from the whole of Greece.
What’s more, as Shapps himself conceded, the change has come too late for some destinations. Had the approach distinguished between islands and mainland infection rates from the beginning of the lockdown easing, the Canaries and probably the Balearics – major destinations of vital importance to Britain’s travel industry – could have been kept open when mainland Spain was shut back in July. I was not the only one to point this out at the time. Madeira and the Azores might also have been opened rather than lumped in with the Portuguese mainland for most of the summer.
To change policy at this time of year is also of relatively little help. The season is all but over, the flying programmes are winding down, and many Mediterranean hotels will soon be closing. The prize of a reasonably successful summer season has already slipped from our grasp.
I don’t underestimate how difficult it is to manage the situation. But a bit more consistency and transparency would have gone a long way to regain trust among travellers and the industry as a whole. The way forward now is surely not to keep tinkering with a broken system, but to come up with a more manageable one.
We at Telegraph Travel think that the answer lies in testing arriving passengers at ports and airports. There is a growing momentum behind our campaign – Test4Travel (telegraph.co.uk/test4travel) – which has received widespread support from leading figures throughout the industry and in Parliament. There will be a debate on the issue in the House of Commons on Thursday.
No doubt the Government will continue to resist the idea. Both the Prime Minister and Grant Shapps have claimed that testing would pick up only seven per cent of infected travellers arriving in this country. But this figure is widely disputed, and in any case, under our proposals, any false negatives would be caught by a second compulsory test which all passengers who had arrived from a red zone country would have to take five days later. The testing regime would therefore reduce the length of compulsory quarantine from 14 to five days for all those who showed a negative result.
Under this system, travellers could book their trips safe in the knowledge that the consequence of a sudden change in quarantine status for the destination they had chosen would not be nearly so severe. And we would all also be freer to travel to other destinations already on the quarantine list without facing such draconian sanctions when we got home.
Let’s hope that Thursday’s debate knocks some heads together and that we don’t have to wait too long for the Government to recognise the value of a more consistent and transparent approach to international travel.