Frustration Mounts at British ‘Confusing’ Traffic-Light System

The government’s three-tier approach determining restrictions on transit to and from different countries is drawing ire from British travelers and the travel industry alike.


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So-called “Freedom Day” in Britain, which last Monday marked the government’s lifting of all remaining coronavirus requirements, was a far cry from the blithe liberty that many locked-down British residents had dreamed of for the past year. Nearly 40,000 new coronavirus cases were recorded in the 24 hours before the anticipated day, while hundreds of thousands of people received a notification on a government tracing app, asking them to self-isolate for 10 days because of possible exposure to the virus.

On the same day, vaccinated Britons who had escaped across the English Channel to France, to enjoy new privileges of quarantine-free travel, were abruptly informed that they would have to self-isolate when they returned home, regardless of their vaccination status. It was the second time British authorities had swiftly reversed course: In June, just weeks after letting British travelers freely travel to Portugal without quarantining upon their return, they changed the rules because of concerns about the prevalence of the Delta variant. Thousands of British residents rushed to Portuguese airports trying to get back home before the quarantine rule went back into effect.

Now the chaos of the past week has left many people in Britain feeling anxious, overwhelmed and confused over how to spend the rest of their summer. Travel operators and industry professionals are also exasperated at the constant uncertainty after more than a year of unprecedented job and revenue losses.

“It’s obvious that this government doesn’t want anyone to travel abroad, so they’ve made the system as unpredictable, stressful and confusing as possible so that people are left with no choice but to stay put,” said Penelope Stenham, an interior designer from London who specializes in vacation home design in Spain and Portugal.

The British government instituted its three-tier “traffic light” system for international travel in May as a way to safely unlock cross-border travel. Under the system, British residents traveling to “green list” countries do not need to quarantine upon their return, but are still required to take virus tests. Those residents who go to “amber list” countries are required to self-isolate at home for 10 days unless they have been fully vaccinated by the British National Health Service, in which case “green list” rules apply. If they travel to a “red list” country, they must quarantine for 10 days in a government-approved hotel, which costs about $2,300 per person.

The government usually announces any changes every three weeks, after conducting a review of the system that uses criteria like virus rates, vaccination rollouts and the quality of available genomic sequencing to determine restrictions on different countries.

Members of the travel sector have harshly criticized the approach, saying it lacks transparency and specific parameters for what is required for countries to move up and down the list. These considerations, critics say, would allow consumers to book vacations with more confidence.

“There’s no consistency, there’s too much caution and there’s a desire to cause confusion among consumers,” said Paul Charles, the chief executive officer of The PC Agency, a London-based travel consultancy firm that analyzes data used by the government to categorize countries in its traffic-light system.

Some people believe the government is deliberately sowing confusion in order to dissuade them from nonessential travel. British officials reject such claims, saying that their recent decision to allow fully vaccinated Britons to visit “amber” countries without requiring them to quarantine upon their return has enabled more travel.

For the government’s last assessment, on July 14, industry experts had expected countries such as Italy, Germany and Canada to be moved to the “green list,” and Turkey and the United Arab Emirates to be upgraded to “amber” from “red,” based on the countries’ case numbers and vaccination rates. But only Bulgaria and Hong Kong were upgraded to green. No country has been moved off the red list since the traffic light system started.

The government has rejected criticism of its cautious approach, saying that it is necessary to protect the country’s successful vaccination program while it grapples with a new surge in Covid cases, which is driven by the highly contagious Delta variant.

“Our international travel policy is guided by one overwhelming priority — public health,” a spokesman for the Department of Transport, speaking anonymously in line with government policy, said in an email. “Traffic light allocations are based on a range of factors including genomic surveillance capability, transmission risk and variants of concern.”

Britain’s travel operators have called for an immediate overhaul of the system, saying that the lack of transparency and sudden changes have wreaked havoc among consumers and businesses and could put hundreds of thousands of jobs at risk.

More than 300,000 jobs were lost in the British travel sector last year, according to the World Travel & Tourism Council, and a further 218,000 jobs are at serious risk if international travel remains restricted, it said.

“While the domestic holiday market is reaping the benefits of ‘Freedom Day,’ with staycations booming, we are not out of the woods yet,” said Virginia Messina, a senior vice president of the W.T.T.C.

“International travel remains either off limits or frustratingly difficult for many,” she added. “This means the door to significant overseas travel still remains effectively closed.”

A group of British airports and airlines sued the government earlier this month, accusing them of ruining their business because of a lack of clarity and what they said seemed like arbitrary decisions on the categories in which countries were placed.

London’s High Court accepted part of the argument against the government, but on July 20 ruled that Britain has acted lawfully in creating the system.

“It seems to us that the government is not being upfront and providing enough evidence about the data involved in making these decisions,” said Tim Alderslade, the chief executive of Airlines UK, the trade body for airlines registered in Britain.

“We’re not given the data and I think that is the real frustration for the sector, because we are trying to plan and schedule operations, and work out what countries are going to where, but it is very difficult when we do not have the full picture,” he said.

Members of the British public are equally irritated by the lack of clarity in the system. After the sudden changes to the rules on France last week, many have canceled trips for August out of fear that the government will change the rules in the next review.

In May, when the government eased restrictions on overseas travel, Alyssa Campbell, a 44-year-old events manager, dipped into her savings account and booked a villa in Spain for a two-week summer getaway with her husband.

“I wanted to get ahead of the crowds and book something really special for our anniversary in August before prices went up,” she recalled in a telephone interview. “We got our jabs, and I was confident that the worst of the pandemic would be over by August.”

But when the government made the snap decision to restrict travel from France last week, rumors started to swirl that Spain would be next, prompting Ms. Campbell to cancel her trip.

“There’s no way to know what will happen, but cases in Spain are really high at the moment and if we wait for the next review, I’m going to lose my deposit,” she said, letting out a frustrated sigh. “It’s a huge gamble that we can’t afford.”

People who are required to travel for business are also struggling, as work meetings and events are usually scheduled months in advance. Rachel Poulton, 51, a teacher who recently relocated from the U.A.E. to Britain for work, had to spend 10 days in a government-approved quarantine hotel this month before she could go home to Doncaster in northern England.

“My irritation is that I’ve been working overseas, and the traffic system seems to just be based around leisure holidays with no understanding that a large number of expats need to go abroad for work and get back home for family,” Ms. Poulton said.

While her quarantine experience at the Crown Plaza Hotel in Birmingham was not as bad as she expected, Ms. Poulton said she felt much safer in the U.A.E., where virus case numbers were significantly lower than in Britain.

“It was surreal to be treated as this big threat from abroad and have food delivered on the floor outside our rooms as if we were dogs, and then to turn on the TV to see thousands of fans packed into Wembley Stadium for the football, while the Delta variant is raging,” she said.

With demand for domestic travel soaring, planning local vacations has also become an ordeal, with most popular destinations either fully booked or costing much more than in years past.

“For the price of a room at a gorgeous four-star resort on the Portuguese coast, you’re going to get a tent or a caravan in England and will probably have to share a toilet,” said Simon McGregor, 34, a London-based art technician. “With everything else booked up, that’s it. That’s the great British stay-at-home summer that’s on offer — a tremendous amount of Covid and no guarantee of sunshine.”

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