UK travel regulations: Why the ‘traffic light system’ has angered the travel industry

(CNN) — “Are we following the data? It appears not,” read the subject line of the marketing email that landed in inboxes this month.

“How many Border Force officials does it take to process a fully immunized British subject returning from a country with no worse infection rates than the UK? Just the same as an unvaccinated passenger coming in from almost anywhere,” it continued.

It then included a table of Covid-19 caseloads and vaccination rates for five countries — Malta, USA, Canada, Portugal and Spain — all of which showed lower case rates than the UK.

It reads like an angry blog post; but this was a marketing email to customers of Trailfinders, one of the UK’s largest travel agents.

Following the rant, the email went on to trumpet the company’s award-winning service and “unrivaled financial protection and support,” and listed their latest offers.

The email — sent June 9 and written by Trailfinders’ owner, Mike Gooley, was perhaps the most public reaction of the travel industry’s anger against the UK government’s Covid-19 travel restrictions.

Having spent months drawing up a “traffic light system” to grade countries red, amber or green by risk level, and imposing testing and quarantine regulations to match, the government launched the regulations on May 7, but appeared to make a U-turn in its first update to the scheme less than a month later.

On June 3, destinations such as Malta, Greece and Grenada were widely expected to turn green — meaning anyone arriving from those places would avoid quarantine.

But instead, the government didn’t add a single country to the green list. And they went further, downgrading Portugal — the UK’s only real tourist destination on the green list — to the amber list, meaning passengers traveling from there must now quarantine for 10 days at home.

That wasn’t supposed to happen, either; green countries on the turn towards amber were supposed to first be added to a “green watch list,” giving adequate warning that a destination might be able to change color — to “give passengers more certainty,” it was announced at the time.

Instead, the government “started to tear up the rule book at the first opportunity,” says Simon McNamara, country manager for the UK and Ireland at IATA, the International Air Transport Association.

“It was widely expected that some countries would be added [on June 3],” he says. “And they said they’d have an early warning.”

Announcing the update on June 3, the UK’s transport secretary Grant Shapps called it a “safety-first approach.”

Instead, McNamara insists, the government “did precisely the thing they said they wouldn’t, and created chaos.”

The last straw

A man wearing a face mask walks past people enjoying a day at Parede beach in Cascais in the outskirts of Lisbon on May 26, 2020

Portugal’s removal from the green list drew fury from the travel industry.

PATRICIA DE MELO MOREIRA/AFP via Getty Images

Not just chaos; anger, too. The travel industry — crippled worldwide by the Covid-19 pandemic — was already feeling febrile. But Portugal’s removal from the green list tipped many industry workers over the edge.

Hence that email from Trailfinders to its 1.2 million clients.

“The traveling public deserve the facts,” says Trailfinders CEO Toby Kelly when asked why they sent the email written by Mike Gooley.

“We have been told that the traffic light decisions have been based on data. Both the data and methodology must be made public. We wanted [our clients] to look at the data and draw their own conclusions.”

A spokesperson for the UK’s Department of Transport told CNN the traffic light system is decided by ministers, who go by risk assessments created by the Joint Biosecurity Center. Factors include genomic surveillance capability, transmission risk and variant risks. A summary is posted on the government’s website.

But Kelly says that isn’t enough.

“Confidence in travel was dealt a heavy blow when Portugal came off the green list, as it suggested countries will come on and off without obvious rationale.

“If travelers understand that cases in other countries are lower, or as low as the UK’s and immunization levels are similar, or greater, then they may feel more confident about booking travel for the months ahead.

Kelly says he felt “confused, frustrated, disappointed” when Portugal was removed from the green list.

He’s not the only one.

“The only thing I can put it down to is that there’s a lot of fear in society, and a lot of scaremongering, and I do feel the government are playing to that,” says Julia Lo Bue-Said, CEO of the Advantage Travel Partnership, the UK ‘s largest independent consortium of travel agents.

“Otherwise there’s no logic. And in the absence of transparency, it leads you to wonder.”

She points to summer 2020, when the UK’s list of “travel corridors” allowed people to fly in and out of the country with neither tests nor quarantine.

“We’ve vaccinated 50% of the adult population — how can we possibly be in a worse position now than last year?,” she asks.

“I feel travel has been sacrificed because [the government is] prioritizing opening up the UK. Other European countries haven’t done that, and it’s an extreme approach which has been to the detriment of the travel sector,” says Paul Charles, travel PR and CEO of the PC Agency, who’s become known on Twitter for predicting which destinations will end up on which list. Despite his data-crunching of infection and vaccination rates, so far, he’s been largely wrong.

What went wrong?

The penguin-inhabited Falkland Islands are among the unlikely destinations on the UK's green list.

The penguin-inhabited Falkland Islands are among the unlikely destinations on the UK’s green list.

Charlene Rowland/CNN

So how did they get here?

After a disastrous bout with Covid-19 in the first year of the pandemic — Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he was “deeply sorry” when the UK became the first country in Europe to pass 100,000 deaths on 26 January — the UK seemed to be turning a corner.

Its super-fast vaccine drive won plaudits across the world — more than 42 million of its 53 million population have now received at least one dose — and its policy of delaying the second dose by three months, instead of the two weeks initially planned, has been copied by other European countries, who at first had raised eyebrows.

Its travel policy has been less straightforward.

Unlike many countries around the world who closed their borders, or implemented quarantine or testing systems at the start of the pandemic, the UK was allowing anyone to enter from anywhere in the world, without any testing or quarantine, for the first few months.

In June 2020, it imposed a blanket 14-day quarantine on anyone arriving from a destination not classed as “low risk” — the travel corridors.

Then, following the discovery of the UK variant in December 2020, which led to countries around the world banning arrivals from the UK, the government made testing a requirement in January 2021. Non-essential travel was swiftly declared illegal, with fines of £5,000 ($7,000) introduced in March 2021 for those caught at an airport trying to flee the country without an adequate reason.

But while the restrictions were increasing, the travel industry was looking to the future. In February, the UK government set up a travel “taskforce” to construct a “framework for a safe and sustainable return to international travel” with an aim of restarting on May 17.

The taskforce consulted with travel industry professionals — from airlines to tour operators — and the result was the traffic light system. It was announced on May 7, but the number of countries on the green list was already looking low — it mainly comprised destinations that don’t accept UK tourists (such as Australia and New Zealand) and smaller destinations not suitable for mass tourism, such as the Falkland Islands and the Faroes.

Gibraltar, Israel and Portugal were the only sunshine destinations on the list — but the current conflict in Israel ruled it out for many, and at just 2.625 square miles, the British Overseas Territory of Gibraltar is hardly a mass tourism destination.

Airlines swiftly laid on flights to Portugal by the bucketload, and non-essential travel became legal again on May 17.

But the race to the Portuguese sun lasted just 17 days, when the update came through and Portugal was moved onto the amber list. Passengers were given four days notice to get back, or spend 10 days in quarantine on their return.

Rising variants despite vaccinations

A man draws the curtains in his room at the Radisson Blu hotel after arriving at Heathrow airport and going into quarantine on February 15, 2021

Quarantining at the Radisson Blu hotel, Heathrow — a necessity for red list passengers.

Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

With infection rates on the rise despite the vaccination progress — case numbers had soared by 78% in the week leading up to 18 June, leading Italy to slap a five-day quarantine on arrivals from the UK, and the EU to keep it off its “white list” of approved destinations — things are looking a little less rosy in Great Britain than they were.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson was criticized for not adding India to the red list on April 9, when he added neighboring countries Pakistan and Bangladesh, as the situation spiraled there. Instead, he waited till April 23.

“They should have put India on the red list at the same time as Pakistan and Bangladesh. Since then, we’ve had this three-week period in which thousands of people have returned from India and that probably includes hundreds of the new variant Covid cases,” opposition MP Yvette Cooper told the BBC’s “Andrew Marr Show.”

The Delta variant, first discovered in India, is now dominant in the UK and leading what scientists are calling a third wave that was already brewing when the government pulled Portugal off the green list.

In fact, Labour, the opposition party, goes one step further than the Conservative government and is calling for the abolition of the amber list. If a country isn’t green, they say, it should be on the hotel quarantine list.

A spokesperson for the UK’s Department for Transport told CNN:

“The decision not to add any countries to the green list and to move Portugal to the amber list has been taken in light of variants of concern and emerging mutations.

“England is taking a cautious approach to opening up international travel, to protect the UK from seeding new infections at a time where infection rates are low and the vaccine roll-out is ongoing.”

“The government always said they reserved the right to act quickly, but it’s very opaque,” argues Simon McNamara. “This is politics driving it, not data or science.”

His theory? That allowing vacations while the UK itself wasn’t yet fully out of lockdown was bad optics. “Reopening international travel didn’t look good, so they tore up the rulebook — and now we have the absurd situation where every industry has some kind of certainty [about when restrictions will end] with the exception of international travel,” he says.

“Nightclubs and bars have been promised that July 19 is the endpoint [postponed from June 21] but there’s no such clarity for international travel. That’s incredibly frustrating for a business trying to plan the future. Running an airline is a complicated business.

“It’s created chaos. Understandably all the energy has gone out of the window and we’re now almost back to where we were in March.”

Tourists are going elsewhere

President Joe Biden was in Cornwall this month -- but other Americans are avoiding the UK.

President Joe Biden was in Cornwall this month — but other Americans are avoiding the UK.

Andrew Parsons/No10 Downing Street

It’s not just travel companies and airline insiders ruing the UK’s cautious approach. Patricia Yates, director of strategy and communications at Visit Britain, the national tourism body, worries that the UK’s restrictions means it is lagging behind other countries in the rush to pick up tourists ready to travel again.

International tourism brought £28 billion ($39 billion) to the UK every year pre-pandemic; this year, it’s forecast that figure will drop to just £6 billion ($8.3 billion).

And with European countries making a play for the high-spending American visitors who’d normally spend time in Britain, it’s possible that those willing to travel at the moment might bypass their usual London layover and head straight to more welcoming countries.

“You can see countries all around the world looking at how they rebuild their tourism industry — they’re investing hugely and looking first at markets they want to attract, then at how they flex their border policies to attract the high-spending markets,” she says.

“The worry as a tourism board is that we’re going to go into a market that’s so competitive when there’s still uncertainty at the moment.

“Americans are really worried — a lot of Americans had holidays pushed back, people have vouchers they need and want to spend. There’s a considerable appetite to travel, and it’s our most valuable market. And they can see other countries opening to Americans.”

At the recent G7 summit held in the UK, President Biden and Boris Johnson agreed to establish a transatlantic taskforce to look at restarting travel between the two countries.

John Bevan, divisional senio vice president of the Dubai-based Dnata Travel Group, which owns multiple global travel brands including Travelbag, Travel Republic and Destination Asia as part of the Emirates Group, says that London this summer will miss the wealthy Middle Eastern visitors who traditionally spend the summer in the British capital.

“The Emirati community who come, spend heavily in the shops and restaurants is just not going to be there. Those entire hotel floors taken up by single families are not going to be there. They’re not going to do a 10-day hotel quarantine — they just won’t come. It’s shocking for London.”

Lo Bue-Said says it’s not just London. “Our city centers are on their knees, our meeting spaces are empty. They depend on inbound travel.”

The travel industry waited… and waited

Usually Brits are surfing travel sites for inspiration -- but not anymore.

Usually Brits are surfing travel sites for inspiration — but not anymore.

CNN

Bevan says that the UK travel industry had respected the restrictions to such an extent that they hadn’t been taking bookings.

“We were resolute through the third lockdown. Most businesses told clients, ‘We’re not going to book you before July.’ We actually turned away bookings.

“But as the government banged the drum heavier and heavier — they did the taskforce, they did the traffic light system — we thought, they’re going to listen. But that watch list never appeared.

“I suppose if you looked at the language they use, they always said they’d do their best so it’s not like they promised they would — but still, it was implied. And then they put Portugal on [the green list] and then did exactly the thing that we didn’t want to do — the u-turn.

“We appeared to be hitting the numbers as per the targets given by the government, yet they kept pushing the goalposts back. And the taskforce spent time with qualified people from the industry, yet they didn’t implement what they discussed.

“I think [the traffic light system] can work, and should have. The watch lists were a great idea to buy time.”

Paul Charles disagrees. “The traffic light system which was created as a simple tool has been ruined by the government and may well be dead because consumers have lost confidence in it.”

Bevan agrees that consumer confidence has plummeted in the wake of the Portugal debacle.

“Demand has been lowest in the past three weeks than at any point [during the pandemic]. People aren’t even looking anymore — I’ve never known anything as bad, or such low interest in searching.

We always get a lot of people in inspiration mode looking around, but the government has done a great job in stomping that out. Their negative ‘don’t go on holiday’ messaging has been very successful.”

The Emirates Group’s annual report, published June 15, showed a 96% drop in revenue for its travel services division, plunging the company into its first ever annual loss.

It has gone from a profit of $456 million in the financial year before Covid, to a loss of $6 billion. The figures include Emirates airline, and its cargo and ground-handling services, as well as Dnata’s tour operators and booking sites.

The fightback begins

Planes due to take tourists from the UK to Mallorca (pictured) have been rerouted to service Berlin.

Planes due to take tourists from the UK to Mallorca (pictured) have been rerouted to service Berlin.

AFP via Getty Images

After months of waiting, the UK’s travel industry has had enough. On June 23 — five days before the next traffic light list update, scheduled for June 28 — they’re holding a lobbying day, where industry workers around the country will lobby their MPs (parliamentarians) and hold events in London, Edinburgh and Belfast.

In the English capital, MPs have agreed to meet concerned constituents.

For Julia Lo Bue-Said, it’s an opportunity to finally speak with Grant Shapps, the beleaguered transport secretary, who former British Airways boss and current IATA director general Willie Walsh labeled “minister for no transport” in a recent interview, adding that the traffic light system was “stuck on red,” calling the government’s behavior “disgraceful,” and predicting that “the rest of the world is going to… overtake the UK.”

Shapps is Lo Bue-Said’s MP — so under the rules of the UK Parliament she is entitled to seek his help as a local constituent as well as as an industry executive reaching out in his ministerial capacity. But she says that despite contacting him “numerous” times despite the pandemic, he’s never agreed to a meeting, sending back “template letters” instead.

“I remain hopeful that he will respond and agree to meet me on June 23,” she says.

“The reality is that we’re in a pandemic, so clearly we respect that, and we agree that public health is of paramount importance. But the travel sector has been shut down for 15 months, now. And because of the way travel businesses operate, earn and plan [operators generally earn their money after the client has traveled] it’s put extraordinary pressure on business owners.

“A lot of my members are small businesses — families who’ve effectively worked through their life savings now and can’t see the wood for the trees.

“They haven’t been given the opportunity to trade through to recovery, and they’re not getting appropriate support from the government.”

She says that when restrictions do eventually lift, the UK travel landscape could look very different.

Already, budget airline easyJet has pulled some of its planes from the UK to Germany. Planes destined to take Brits to Mallorca have been moved to Berlin, instead.

EasyJet said in a statement: “We are seeing European governments are progressively opening up using frameworks in place which enable travel and much of it restriction-free.

“And this relaxation and removal of restrictions has sparked a positive booking momentum across Europe, with the majority of our bookings showing a strong swing towards Europe when in normal times it would be a 50/50 split with the UK.

“Europe is demonstrating that a safe reopening of travel is possible and so we continue to urge the UK Government to do so urgently.”

An easing of the rules?

Relaxing the restrictions would likely put an end to Heathrow's current ghostly appearance.

Relaxing the restrictions would likely put an end to Heathrow’s current ghostly appearance.

Hollie Adams/Getty Images

There might be light at the end of the tunnel, however. On Thursday, rumors surfaced that the UK might be considering a scheme similar to that of many European countries, which allows double-vaccinated travelers to skip quarantine, even from an amber list destination, from the end of July.

Jesse Norman, financial secretary to the Treasury, who’s married to venture capitalist Kate Bingham who headed up the UK’s vaccine strategy, seemed to confirm it, saying in an interview on Sky News that it is “being considered… we don’t want to get left behind by countries which may be adopting a two-jabs approach if it can be done safely, carefully and securely.”

But a government spokesperson refused to comment to CNN.

There’s one other string to the UK’s bow, too, says Visit Britain’s Patricia Yates: the G7 Summit.

Held on the beach in England’s southernmost county, Cornwall, delegates including President Biden, Japan’s Prime Minister Suga and President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen were photographed daily on the beach. Press conferences and photoshoots took place in front of turquoise waters. The delegates’ spouses were taken to a performance at the open-air Minack Theater, etched into a clifftop, and the whole party enjoyed dinner in a biosphere at the Eden Project, which champions sustainability.

“The photos just looked stunning — people were saying to me, ‘That looks like Thailand,'” says Yates, adding that their social media accounts saw “a lot of pick up,” especially from Japan, the US and Australia. The summit displayed a Britain that’s “more informal, not stiff, and showcasing the countryside,” she says.

The blow to consumers

Maldives Hurawalhi

When Brits finally manage to get away, they might find destinations such as the Maldives have become more expensive.

courtesy Hurawalhi

Even if restrictions ease, though, it might be too late.

Lo Bue-Said fears that prices will end up rising for UK travelers.

“We speak to our counterparts in different parts of the world, they now have Germans, Italians, other Europeans traveling. UK consumers will be left behind — hotels are contracting for the summer season, but there are no guarantees that Brits will arrive so they’re going to the Europeans. Which inevitably will not only mean a scramble for the right products, but also prices will increase.”

IATA’s McNamara agrees: “The UK has already lost its lead but will lose even further. On June 28 we want to see that policy changed.”

Of course, easing the restrictions is likely to result in a rise in case numbers, as has already been seen in the rocketing numbers since the domestic lockdown was lifted.

“The government seems to be going for a zero-risk strategy, but nothing is zero risk — everything has a little risk in it,” says McNamara. “Aviation is not a zero-risk business, but it’s managed amazingly well and as a result it’s the safest mode of transport.

“Yes, there will be some cross-border transmission, but there’s no reason why we can’t take a similar approach to this risk.”

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