Three Reasons Why A U.S./U.K. Travel Corridor Is Problematic

Whilst the U.S., U.K. and the EU are gradually removing domestic Covid-19 restrictions, the resistance to remove international travel restrictions can seem frustrating to separated couples and families as well as businesses and holidaymakers.

Whilst Americans are now allowed into most of Europe (and the U.K. with quarantine), the same is not true in the opposite direction. Most Europeans are also not allowed into the U.K. without quarantine and some EU countries are closing their borders once more to British travelers, due to the sharp rise in the Delta variant. To many, it seems as if the reopening of borders has stalled.

As reported by inews, U.K. Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said that “progress was being made” on the negotiations between the U.S. and the U.K., but reports suggest it might still be some time before people can travel freely for three crucial reasons:

  • the U.S. does not currently recognise the AstraZeneca vaccine, which has been used to vaccinate many British people against Covid-19. This is because AstraZeneca hasn’t applied for a license in the U.S.

  • there is no easy way to decide how to recognise whether a U.S. traveler has had the vaccine upon arrival into the U.K.–the U.S. uses a different means in each of its 50 states and there is no digitised certificate in the U.S., such as the U.K.’s NHS health application.
  • the Delta variant is still on the increase. It now makes up over 90% of cases in the U.K. and is expected to make up three quarters in the EU by the end of August. As reported by The New Yorker, the Delta variant is now far more transmissable than the virus which spread across the world in 2020 and early evidence suggests that it doubles the risk of being hospitalized, compared to the Alpha variant. What’s more, there is now a Delta Plus–newly identified in India and much more transmissable even than the Delta variant.

For these reasons, The Financial Times reported that there was little chance of a breakthrough before the end of summer. Reuters added that talks were likely to extend into August and September before the corridor would open.

The U.K. has relaxed quarantine rules for top executives

The U.K. has slightly relaxed its policy towards business class travelers, in that executives who “bring significant economic benefit” to England and whose employment supports 500 or more jobs, can now travel to the U.K. quarantine-free.

The move was put in place to appease the city of London and large multinationals but might not seem to go far enough, as reported in The New York Times–lots of companies are searching for EU headquarters post-Brexit, and these places are currently more relaxed in travel restrictions. JPMorgan, for instance, is establishing a new trading hub in Paris, to overtake the one in London.

However, as reported in Politico, the policy to allow top executives to travel quarantine-free has received criticism from several corners, with Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner calling it an “offensive slap in the face” for normal people who haven’t been able to travel throughout the pandemic.

Both U.K. and U.S. governments have been criticised for unpredictable decision-making and opaqueness

There have been calls for both the U.K. and the U.S. government to be more transparent about how they have come to decisions about travel restrictions and to be much clearer about when they think travel might be able to restart:

  • in mid-June, Ryanair, Europe’s largest airline sued the U.K. government over “unpredictable travel restrictions.” CEO Michael O’Leary was asking for the system to be much more transparent, to help the airline industry plan and therefore, recover. Leary said “we call on Prime Minister Boris Johnson to explain the scientific basis behind this system that the Government seems to make up as they go along and to establish a data-driven transparent model that could restore confidence in air travel ahead of the very crucial peak summer months.”
  • the U.K. government has been criticised for making travel decisions which it later rescinds–such as the decision to green light quarantine-free travel to Portugal on 17 May, only to re-introduce quarantine on the country three weeks’ later when everyone had booked tickets and many had already left on holiday.
  • on 23 June, airlines and staff led protests in central London against the U.K. government’s handling of travel regulations and how the traffic light system had been confusing and inconsistent. The U.K. government has also been heavily criticised for delaying the decision to suspend flights to and from India at the onset of the Delta variant, resulting in a surge across the U.K.
  • the industry has called for the use of Covid-19 vaccination certificates instead of quarantine, as a means of getting the industry back on its feet. Drew Crawley, American Express Global Business Travel’s Chief Commercial Officer, argued that “both the U.K. and the U.S. have made significant progress on their vaccination programmes and have similar r-rates, which raises several questions as to why travel remains heavily restricted. We can’t afford to wait any longer.” Crawley added that as the “U.S.-U.K. travel routes are among the most profitable in the world” that the “continued closure of these vital routes for more than 400 days has been detrimental to economic recovery in both countries.”  
  • Reuters reported on how airlines officials asked the U.K. and U.S. to open up to vaccinated travelers, as the EU has done. British Airways Chief Executive Sean Doyle believes the “U.K. will get left behind because I do see Europe actually moving at a quicker pace to open up. We should be acknowledging that vaccinated travellers have an inherently lower risk when they travel than those who don’t,” Doyle added.

EU diplomats are pressuring the U.S. to rescind travel ban

The Wall Street Journal reported on 26 June how European diplomats are continuing to urge the U.S. government to lift the 15-month travel ban put in place by the Trump administration in March 2020. “We raise this in every official meeting,” one European diplomat told the WSJ.

The EU ambassador to the U.S., Stavros Lambrinidis, reported to AFP that Brussels is “pushing” for reciprocity since U.S. travelers are now allowed to travel to many EU countries. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce urged Washington on 26 June, as reported by France 24, to allow the return of European travelers “as soon as possible.”

U.S. Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, also expressed hope that Europeans will soon be able to visit the United States again, in a visit to France last Friday. He underlined that Europe was the most vaccinated continent and that from 1 July, the widespread use of Digital COVID Certificates across the bloc would significantly aid widespread return to travel. In fluent French he told an online forum, “I hope that this will happen quickly. We really want to. I hope it will be a matter of weeks rather than months.”

Cross-working groups can take a long time

It was at the G7 Summit that the U.S. government announced the launch of working groups, to try to get travel up and running from the U.S. as quickly as possible. A White House official told the Financial Times that “recognising the importance of travel to our citizens and their families, and the critical role trade relationships and our transportation sector play in our economies, the Biden administration is launching a series of expert working groups with four key partners: Canada, Mexico, the European Union and the U.K. to determine how best to reopen travel safely.”

As the Financial Times reported, these cross-agency working groups can often take a very long time to reach policy conclusions—the five governmental organisations taking part are the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the state, homeland security, health and transport departments.

Current travel restrictions in place

There are now circumstances where travel is allowed from the U.K.—as reported by The Telegraph, U.S. citizens, Green Card holders and spouses of U.S. citizens are now allowed in. However, due to backlogs and delays at U.S. embassies and consulates around the world, some people who have valid work/residency permits cannot renew them and travel into the U.S. as they would wish to.

Travelers from the U.S. are allowed into the U.K. but they must quarantine for ten days and take Covid-19 tests on days 2 and 8 (they can also take a test on day five, as part of the ‘Test and Release’ scheme, where they can exit quarantine if the test result is negative, but they still must test on day 8 regardless). There has been talk of allowing fully-vaccinated travelers from amber list countries into the U.K. without quarantine and this might happen before the U.S. opens up in return, possibly as early as July 19.

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