Finally the curse is lifting. As of this week, travellers can once again move freely between most of the 22 EU countries in the Schengen area. But despite the fact that thousands of flights are scheduled to most of those countries over the next few weeks, and ferries and the Eurostar are operating, we Brits remain shackled. The Foreign Office continues to advise against all but essential travel, even though all those Schengen countries have a significantly lower rate of Covid-19 infection than the UK. And if we decide bravely to go anyway, we will have to submit ourselves to compulsory self-isolation for 14 days after we return.
Here’s the situation on the continent. Last week, the European Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson, urged Schengen members to lift as many restrictions as possible so that summer holidays can resume by July. Most are activating the new policy this week, with Spain bringing forward its opening date by ten days to June 21. Mainland Portugal has opened its borders and welcomes all Schengen countries, except for its border with Spain which it will open on 1st July.
A few restrictions do still apply specifically to UK citizens. France continues the reciprocal quarantine policy for British travellers it introduced in response to the UK’s own measures, so once you arrive in France, you have to self-isolate for 14 days. And Greece has extended the ban on UK arrivals for another two weeks, until June 30.
So we are now in a bizarre position where Europe is deemed safe for Europeans to travel, but not for us. Official UK advice looks completely out of step and – as I pointed out last week – the inconsistency and uncertainty is causing huge problems both for consumers who are worried about their holidays and for airlines and the travel industry in general.
The advice against all but essential overseas travel was made indefinite by the FCO on April 5. There is no official definition of “essential” but, while the advice is in place, it effectively ends the possibility of a foreign holiday or leisure travel. Since it is used as a test of the duty of care which a tour operator owes to its clients, it means that the operator is obliged to cancel a trip and offer customers a refund. And while it doesn’t make independent travel illegal, going abroad in contravention of such advice invalidates the cover offered by virtually all travel insurance policies.
Now, with the beginning of the school summer holidays only six weeks away, the lack of clarity has reached a critical point. Millions of people who have booked flights and package holidays don’t know whether they will be able to travel and – despite the fact that Europe is reopening, still have no idea when that situation will be resolved.
Most of these are faced with deciding whether to make balance payments – often thousands of pounds – on holidays booked back in January. If they don’t, they forfeit their deposits. Many have contacted me to say they are nervous of travelling and want to be reassured that the trips will be cancelled. Others, keen to go, just want a clearer understanding of when their position will be resolved.
The quarantine rules have only heaped further confusion on the situation. They effectively make it highly undesirable, if not impossible, for most people to travel. And they won’t be reviewed again until June 29 – less that four weeks before the main summer holiday season starts.
Billions of pounds and the future of many airlines and travel companies depend on this situation being resolved and the Foreign Office should be taking a lead, if only by giving us a clearer timeline on its review procedure. Instead it simply says: “We are monitoring the global travel situation closely and keeping our advice against all non-essential travel under continuous review.”
But continuous review is a deeply unsatisfactory situation for both consumers and the travel industry. We know we can’t have certainty. But millions of holidaymakers need clarity – a concrete deadline when a decision will be made on our summer holidays.