Britain's U-turn on travel catches many UK vacationers off guard
Just a few months ago, Britain was the envy of continental Europeans. A rapid vaccination push opened a path to reopen the UK. economy, from shops to restaurants to international travel. The European Union, by contrast, looked stuck in inoculation bureaucracy and endless Covid-19 lockdowns.
Now the tables are turning, with the government of Prime Minister Boris Johnson on the defensive following a sudden policy U-turn on travel that caught many UK vacationers off guard. On the other side of the channel, holiday bookings from Germany to France to Spain are gathering pace, in line with a vaccination drive covering a growing part of the population and depressing infections.
The UK’s surprise decision on June 3 to remove Portugal from a small list of countries where travel had been relatively easy forced tourists to seek a rapid retreat or face lengthy quarantines and more tests upon re-entry.
The abrupt move echoes the disruption that took hold last summer, when sudden changes to quarantine rules forced vacationers to rush home at short notice. It’s forced airlines to readjust once again after pouring more resources into the Portuguese market when that country opened up a few weeks ago.
“Boris Johnson’s government is again mismanaging the Covid recovery,” said Michael O’Leary, the chief executive officer of discount specialist Ryanair Holdings Plc. “This stop-go-stop approach to short haul travel in Europe is inexplicable and unjustified when 75% of the U.K. population has now received a Covid vaccine.”
For Brits stuck in Portugal, carriers are putting on extra flights to help them return home. Both British Airways and EasyJet said they will be operating more flights and using larger aircraft to ensure passengers can get back to the U.K. before the Tuesday deadline.
While the latest twist is sure to deter many Brits from planning holidays abroad, bookings from Germany, Italy, Spain and France for beach vacations have been steadily rising and are now up about 52% in the past month, according to travel comparison website Skyscanner. Popular destinations include Palma, Ibiza, Barcelona, Tenerife and Crete.
This week, France said it would allow vaccinated travelers from the EU to enter without showing negative Covid-19 tests starting June 9. All member states will accept visitors who hold so-called Covid-19 certificates from July 1. Dubbed the EU Digital Covid Certificate, it will be issued free of charge in digital or paper format, and certify their holders have been inoculated against the coronavirus, recovered from the illness or tested negative.
Package holiday firm TUI AG is offering discounts of as much as 52% on last minute getaways to Mallorca and the Canary Islands, while U.K. discount carrier EasyJet Plc said it would gear up its European fleet even as the ever-changing rules in its home market makes it impossible to plan.
EU countries already have latitude to start allowing in visitors from outside the bloc, including the all-important American contingent. Italy was among the first European nations to reopen, allowing passengers from EU countries, the UK and Israel to skip quarantine if they’ve had a negative Covid test, according to the health ministry. Greece, with its tourism-dependent economy, allowed tourists from some countries without a quarantine from April.
In May, TUI -- which draws on German and British clientele -- said it stood by its plans to offer 75% of its 2019 capacity in the peak months of July through September. Even as the U.K. left Spain off its green list, Germans are already able to vacation in the country after the lifting of a general travel ban, and TUI Cruises had resumed operations.
Air France-KLM and Deutsche Lufthansa AG both forecast an improvement over the summer. Air France-KLM has said its group capacity during the season would be as much as 65% of 2019 levels, while Lufthansa has added European destinations and seen bookings on some routes to Spain surge past 2019 levels.
The loosening of border restrictions by French authorities covers vaccinated EU visitors and forgoes a quarantine requirement for inoculated British and American arrivals.
“This is excellent news that will allow the French to go on vacation and see their relatives and for some tourists to visit our country,” Air France CEO Anne Rigail tweeted following the announcement Friday.
The UK wants to lift domestic coronavirus restrictions on June 21, but Covid cases have been on the rise again, fuelled by the highly transmissible Delta variant first identified in India which is now dominant in Britain. For Johnson, himself a coronavirus survivor, his decision comes down to balancing the pandemic toll taken on industry, people’s mental health and job opportunities, against the risk of a fresh spike in cases.
Executives in the U.K. have made clear on which side they stand. Furious airline bosses have written to the government demanding answers about the methodology of the Portugal move, while not adding any more countries to the list.
“The decision was both a shock and severe blow to the U.K. aviation industry and the travelling public,” says the June 4 letter, which was addressed to Transport Secretary Grant Shapps. “Decisions on country allocation remain clouded in mystery, making it impossible for airlines and our customers to plan.”