The usual beach-bar perch at La Casa in Zipolite in southern Mexico belonging to the travel correspondent of The Independent is empty this weekend, due to government action: from 4am on Sunday morning, Mexico joins the red list.
But Simon Calder paused en route to meet some well-connected friends in Sinaloa, who are arranging his onward travel, to answer questions about the latest round of “traffic light” changes.
Q: India off the red list? What the hell is going on? How can the govt leave other countries who have had relatively low numbers throughout, like Egypt, still on the red list?
A: I do my best to understand the workings of the Joint Biosecurity Centre – the part of the Department of Health that tells the government where the risks are.
Every time a nation is taken off the red list, there are questions about many more – for example I can’t work out why the UAE was removed from the red list since it was their squarely because it is an aviation hub which it most definitely still is.
There is a lot of pressure from industry from MPs to find out more about how the decisions are made, and all I can hope is that sooner or later we will get a closer understanding.
Q: The burning question millions of people currently have today is “why is Turkey still stuck on the red list whilst India, with a much higher case rate and lower vaccination rollout, is moved to amber?
Do you think this is political rather than following the data because I can’t, for the life of me, fathom it out?
A: Let me state the government position which is that all of these decisions are taken entirely based on the science: there is no other factor involved. However it is tempting to assume that political considerations may play a part.
The way that the government can crush these scurrilous rumours is to publish all the data to back up their decisions.
Q: Some European countries (France, for example) allow their citizens returning from high-risk countries to self-isolate at home instead of having to pay an exorbitant amount for a hotel quarantine. I live alone and I don’t have family in the UK. If I want to see my elderly mother again, who lives in a red-list country, I would have to spend money that I don’t have.
A lot has been made of people going on holiday and making it easier and cheaper for them, but please think of those of us who want to travel for family reasons. Do you think the government could consider following the same policy as, for example, France?
A: Since February 2021, the government has insisted that travellers from countries designated high risk should go into a “Managed Quarantine Facility” on arrival in the UK for 11 nights. This is regarded as much more secure than self-isolation at home.
The stay must be booked in advance. For a single adult, the cost is £1,750 currently; from Thursday 12 August, it will increase to £2,285, because at present the taxpayer is subsidising the cost; the UK government says it will “better reflect the increased costs involved with providing their quarantine, including transport to the hotel, security, provision of welfare services and the two PCR tests which must be taken on day two and day eight of the stay”.
All of which is very annoying and, I imagine, bordering on punitive for you and thousands of other people whose journeys are emotionally essential.
The best way to avoid paying an exorbitant amount for hotel quarantine is to go to a third country on the amber list or green list that you can happily live in and enjoy for a lot less than the price of 11 nights in some grim airport hotel.
The lowest costs are likely to be in Bulgaria or Romania, where it is possible to live comfortably for £50 a day including three good meals and decent accommodation – for barely a quarter of the increased hotel quarantine cost. Portugal, Spain, Malta and Greece also look good candidates, although they are not so economical.
If it is of any comfort. I believe that the whole highly questionable traffic light system will be shelved by autumn, with travellers who have been fully vaccinated able to travel in from almost anywhere with no obligation to quarantine – though with a rigorous testing regime still in place.
Q: I am due to get married in the Dominican Republic in November 2021. What do you think the likelihood is of it being moved from the red list as its cases a day are around 300 or less whereas India has been moved to the amber list?
A: Well, I am prone to be over-optimistic about outcomes but I would love to be in the beautiful Dominican Republic in November as well. The red list is looking increasingly difficult to justify, and I expect to see it relatively quickly eroded. So I would be confident. And congratulations to you and your fiance(e).
Q: We’re travelling to Fuerteventura for a week on 14 August. Do you think the Canaries are safe, or at risk of going on the red list?
Joanne T 75
A: I have now dismissed the possibility that Spain will be going onto the red list any time soon – in fact ever, because I sense we are moving towards a new regime for autumn when actually the traveller will be the important element as opposed to the proxy of geography. Have jabs, will travel.
Q: Will lateral flow tests still be accepted as a pre-departure test when returning from Spain? The comments of the transport secretary has confused things. My understanding is that we are being urged to take a PCR, but this is not mandatory. Do I have have this correct? I have my lateral flow test and virtual consultation booked for our return, but i don’t want to get turned away by the airline if we present with a lateral flow result at the airport. It seems odd advice when we are still required to take a PCR test on day two back in the UK anyway.
A: Your lateral flow test is absolutely fine for your return to the UK. I find it extraordinarily difficult to make sense of the request for people to do something for the sake of the country that is going to cost them a lot of extra money and time and stress. Astonishingly, the government insists that 9 out of 10 people in Spain choose a PCR test to come back – my estimate is rather that 9 out of 10 choose a cheap, fast lateral flow test, especially if they have previously had Covid.
“If you have recently recovered from Covid but are no longer infectious, you should use a lateral flow device (LFD) test.
“LFD tests have a lower sensitivity than PCR or Lamp tests, so they are less likely to return a positive result from a historic infection.”
That’s not me saying so – it’s Her Majesty’s Government.
You will not be turned away at the airport, because almost everybody else on your flight will have also brought a lateral flow test.
My preference is firmly for having a medically administered test in the overseas destination, rather than a distance-monitored lateral flow. But loads of people have happily come back with just that.
Q: Do you know how much they charge for a test in Tenerife to fly back to the UK?
A: The typical price that I’m seeing for tests in Spain is roughly €30-€35. You just need a lateral flow test before you travel to the UK, but you must pre-book a PCR test in the UK for after you arrive.
Q: I was fully vaccinated in EU. I work in Poland and think of flying to UK via Germany for a weekend. I can arrange day two test without a problem, but what if I don’t get test results before my departure?
A: I am surprised that the government keeps on about the ”day two” test because it is actually a day of arrival test, which can also be taken on one of the two following days. Just organise it at the airport you are flying into, take it, then forget all about the horrible process of coming into the UK and enjoy yourself.
Q: Booked to go to France on 24 August. After the news last night I thought I caught a mention that it would still be advisable to have a PCR test before going. Is this right as do not want to be turned away from Ryanair check-in at the airport?
Suz in Lancs
A: A huge amount of time stress and money is being wasted by people who are taking tests that are not required – in particular to leave the UK the only thing that matters is what rules does the destination country require? And if it’s France and you have been double jabbed there is no need to take a test at all – let alone an expensive and slow PCR test.
Q: My daughter and wife currently have Covid. We are due to fly to Spain on 19 August. Does my daughter need a clear PCR test before departure? My wife is double jabbed so does she just need a clear lateral flow test when leaving Spain or is the government going to insist on PCR tests now when flying into Northern Ireland?
Stephen C 10
A: I am pretty sure that Spain is one of many countries that will accept a letter explaining that your daughter has had Covid, which will be taken as sufficient proof that she presents minimal risk to the Spanish. There is certainly a danger that PCR tests will show residual infection even when the individual is fine and no longer a risk. There is no need to take a high sensitivity PCR test when going back into the UK, and this is extremely regrettable that the government is confusing travellers. If it really wants us to take PCR test then it could just make it the law. Otherwise stop muddying the waters.
Q: I’ve postponed my wedding three times, and now that Norway’s finally green, this means that all of my British guests can at least go home from my wedding in Norway without quarantine. But how long do you think it will be before Norway and the EU accept the UK’s vaccine certificates? As it stands, people have to quarantine when they visit Norway from the UK even if they’re double vaccinated, which of course doesn’t work for my guests.
A: Every European country, whether or not it is a member of the EU, is perfectly entitled to make its own stipulations about British people going in to their country. I am fairly confident that Norway will reduce its restrictions as (hopefully) infection rates in the UK dwindle. Give the Norwegians a couple of weeks. And congratulations to you and your fiance(e).
But Old Dane writes: “I am sorry not to share your optimism. Norway, along with Sweden, managed to defend themselves against the Delta surge rolling over Denmark some five weeks ago and a week or two later Finland and Iceland too.
“The Norwegians will strengthen their defences in the weeks to come, not lower them, as they are currently battling a rising Delta surge, and will not accept the risk of further imported cases. And Norway can afford to lose yet another tourist season.
“In the Nordic nations we keep close eye on the UK development. England and Northern Ireland seem out of control, while Scotland and Wales are doing much better, also on vaccinations. Most European nations adjust their restrictions on a regional basis, not just national.”
Q: The new government guidance for France is worded as applying to travellers arriving after 4am on Sunday. For fully vaccinated travellers arriving from France, say today, will they also benefit from the new rules as of 4am on Sunday or will they still have to serve out the full 10 day 2 quarantine regardless?
A: It is a shame that the government did not point out that anybody who is already quarantining must continue until they finish the self isolation, or leave the country. It is perfectly possible to end your quarantine by travelling abroad even if that is just a round trip to Calais or Dublin.
Q: We are in France until 24 August with our three children all under 16. Do they need to quarantine on return? Do we all need LFTs to leave France, and then Day 2 PCR or just us two adults (we are both vaccinated)?
Glanon In Normandie
A: Before departure, all but children aged 10 and under must take a lateral flow test. On arrival, everyone five and over will need to take PCR tests.
Q: Any idea why the Foreign Office is still advising against all but essential travel to Italy? I asked the FCDO last week but received no response. It means it is impossible to get travel insurance.
R S Marylebone
A: The Foreign Office stresses to me that all its decisions are based on the best possible knowledge and the degree of risk they regard British travellers being in each destination. Which countries that we are warned not to visit because of a high level of coronavirus, when actually it is a tiny fraction of the rate in the UK, I find it increasingly difficult to square the stated intention with the effects.
For example, on low-risk Canada: “The Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO) advises against all but essential travel to Canada based on the current assessment of COVID-19 risks.” Really? I cannot see any data to support that assertion.
However there is now plenty of travel insurance which works even where the government warns against going.
Traffic light changes
Q: I note the the latest traffic light changes will come into play this coming Sunday at 4am. In the past the changes have usually been (I think) the following Monday at 4am. Any idea why they have reduced the warning period by 24 hours? I will travel to Spain later this month and return on the afternoon of the 29 (which is a Sunday) so am concerned any changes to Spain’s status at the next review would leave me in trouble.
Also, given it will be a bank holiday weekend (and the last one before school’s return) do you expect the government to bring this into their thinking at all?
A: The sudden change from Monday to Sunday took a lot of people, including me, by surprise. But then again so did the decision to release the new traffic light changes at 10pm on a Wednesday evening.
I would speculate that your timing is reasonable, and in your position I would comfortably look forward to a great trip – but ask me again nearer the time of your return.
Q: We are planning to travel to France on 17 August and stay for anywhere between four and six weeks. Do we need to have proof of a booked return journey?
A: In theory you do – one of the many adverse consequences of Brexit on travel. However, in my experience French frontier police are very understanding. If you have the deportment of someone who is clearly just going off for a long and well-deserved holiday, then I cannot see the question even arising.
A to Z of vaccinations
Q: I have received both AstraZeneca vaccines which are shown as Vaxzevria on the UK Digital certificate. My first dose was from a batch manufactured in India. I am due to travel to Poland at the start of September.
Could you advise if I will be able to travel to Poland without having to quarantine for 10 days upon arrival.
A: How lovely to be going to Poland – I was very disappointed that the country did not make the green list this time around. There will certainly not be any problem with you getting into Poland with your excellent AstraZeneca jabs. My only suggestion is that you go online and request an NHSCovid pass letter which will speed your progress in Poland. You can even get it in Polish!
Q: We are driving to Germany on Saturday – driving through France (yippee!), Belgium and Holland. Can we transit through Belgium and Holland (all adults are fully vaccinated and we have negative PCR tests)?
A: I am sorry to say that I would not drive through three different countries on the way to my destination. While there is certainly some flexibility for people who are travelling across international borders, and actually I suspect the chances of being stopped and checked are relatively low, but in these uncertain times I am strongly recommending a straightforward A to B flight. It will cost more and be worse for the planet, but probably better for you.
Q: Due to fly to Kefalonia on 26 August. Do you think it is likely they will stay on amber through the next travel review in three weeks?
A: As a double-jabbed person I would have no worries at all about going to any Greek islands for the remainder of the summer – indeed I am actually very excited by the prospect of being in Rhodes in mid November, which is when Jet2 plans to end its summer season.
Q: I’m flying to Zante on 4 September, I understand that I have to have a PCR test before I return to the UK a week later, do you know where in Zante I can get a test? Also, what happens if I test positive?
A: You do not need a PCR test before you return to the UK. I imagine from the moment you touch down in beautiful Zante, there will be a queue of people inviting you to take a cheap and easy lateral flow test before your journey back. If you test positive, then you become the responsibility of the Greek health authorities. They will find somewhere for you to quarantine, and provide you with decent meals while you do so. And all for free.