Late on Thursday, three countries – Andorra, the Bahamas and Belgium – were removed from the UK government list of “safe” nations.
Travellers are advised against visiting, and on return to the UK they must quarantine for two weeks.
But who’s good, who’s bad and how is it all decided?
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Who decides if a country is OK to visit?
Two government departments – the Foreign Office (FCO) and the Department for Transport (DfT) – are in charge.
The Foreign Office handles government travel advice. If a country is deemed to pose “an unacceptably high risk for British travellers,” then a warning is issued. The default at the moment is that all overseas countries are too dangerous, except for those judged exempt.
The DfT is responsible for the quarantine rules for England, and manages the list of exemptions from the general principle that all arrivals to the UK must self-isolate at home for two weeks.
Ministers are advised by experts from the Joint Biosecurity Centre and Public Health England.
Are the Foreign Office and Department for Transport lists the same?
No, and to make matters yet more complicated, the devolved administrations in Cardiff, Edinburgh and Belfast make their own decisions for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
While the four nations of the UK are currently aligned on quarantine, the Foreign Office list is decided on different criteria. The government argument is that FCO advice is aimed at the risk to the individual traveller, while the quarantine regulations are looking at the danger to the country from returning travellers.
The Foreign Office and DfT lists are getting closer, but they still have significant disparities. For example, the Foreign Office regards Canada and Thailand as safe to visit, but the DfT insists travellers arriving from either country must self-isolate for two weeks. Conversely, Mauritius and the Seychelles are on the no-quarantine list but not the Foreign Office list.
One significant difference is that the FCO has a more nuanced approach than the DfT. For example, the very low-risk Portuguese islands of Madeira and the Azores are regarded as safe by the Foreign Office, but all of Portugal is seen as posing a danger by the quarantine officials.
What data do they use to decide?
Officials are very guarded about the exact basis for decisions. All they say is that they constantly look at absolute levels of infections, the R number (how much transmission there is from each person with coronavirus) and trends.
While Foreign Office travel advice does not constitute a ban on travelling, it has the effect of invalidating standard travel insurance policies. An insurer is likely to argue that a breach of a policy term on travel against FCO advice is so material to the insurance contract that any claim arising from the visit to that country would be rejected.”
Within the EU, the European Health Insurance Card (Ehic) is valid for British travellers until 31 December 2020. It entitles holders to free or reduced-rate treatment in a public hospital, but does not cover the cost of emergency repatriation to the UK.
For quarantine, all holidaymakers returning to the UK, and any other arrivals, must self-isolate at home for 14 days, following the date of their arrival. They can leave home only for medical assistance, to attend court or a funeral, to go shopping for essentials if there is no one else who can supply provisions, or to leave the country again.
Leaving the dwelling for work, exercise, socialising or walking the dog is not permitted.
How often do the rules change?
Initially we were told there would be updates to the quarantine list every three weeks (or, depending on the person making the announcement, every 28 days). But the answer turns out to be: very frequently, and at short notice.
The first wave of Foreign Office exemptions took effect on 4 July. Six days later, the DfT relaxed quarantine on its initial list from 10 July – though Spain remained on the Scottish self-isolation list for a further 10 days.
Serbia was removed almost at once due to a surge in cases in the Balkans, and in the past four weeks other countries have come and gone. Many of those have been nations that should never have been on the “naughty list” in the first place (such as Estonia and Lithuania), or to align Foreign Office and DfT advice (adding Brunei and Malaysia to the no-quarantine countries).
Some are irrelevant: putting the Bahamas on the no-go list will make almost no difference, since there is almost no travel to and from those islands.
Much more significant are European bans, of which the sudden removal of Spain from the “good to go” list at a few hours’ notice on 25 July had the most impact.
Last week Luxembourg was ruled too risky, which had little effect. But the addition of Belgium to the no-go list will affect tens of thousands of travellers. And were France to be added, that number would increase by an order of magnitude.
Is there a central authority coordinating the quarantine requirement?
No. The public health authorities in the four UK nations are keeping tabs on some travellers, with police enforcement if necessary. But there is no great central control centre where they know where everybody has been.
As with lockdown, it is almost all done on trust: you are expected to do the right thing, from completing the passenger locator form correctly, and then to go home and stay there
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