After an almost 15-month ban for most UK travellers, are quarantine-free trips to the US finally on the horizon?
Today, Boris Johnson and Joe Biden will bring hope to thousands of families and couples separated between the two countries – as well as eager holidaymakers – by pledging to restart transatlantic air travel as soon as possible.
Most travel between the two nations has been effectively cut off since the US imposed a UK travel ban on March 16, 2020. Only US citizens, permanent residents and a limited number of other categories of people are exempt from this rule. However, last month, the US Centers for Diseases Control moved the UK out of its level four category – which advises travellers against all travel – to level three, which allows certain non-essential travel such as for work or study. Meanwhile, the US remains on the UK’s amber list for travel, meaning anyone arriving in the UK who has been in the US in the previous 10 days must self-isolate for up to 10 days and pay for one additional PCR test on day eight (with the option to pay for an additional ‘Test to Release’ on day five).
Mr Biden and Mr Johnson are set to announce a new joint travel taskforce, which is expected to report back next month. The leaders mark their first face-to-face meeting today ahead of the G7 summit in Cornwall and their pledge could pave the way for holidays to the fourth most-visited country among UK travellers – British residents made 4.79 million trips to the USA in 2019.
However, if the taskforce report its findings in July, it will have already missed the UK’s next travel traffic lights update, due by June 28. The following update is set for July 19. This is already eating far into the peak summer tourist season. Unless an indication is given ahead of time, British holidaymakers’ confidence in booking US breaks for later in the summer is unlikely to grow.
Yet the top level data suggests that the US should be on the UK’s green list. Similarity of vaccination rates in the two countries is a strong point. Some 51.89 per cent of the UK’s adult population have received both jabs (as of June 10). In the US that figure is 52.53 per cent. The UK’s seven day infection rate per 100,000 people is 61.7; the States’ is 32.22. And the US’ rate has been falling over the past seven days.
As for the total share of Covid-19 tests that were positive among those carried out in the two countries, recent data shows the UK at 2.4 per cent and the US at 7.4 per cent.
Among the other factors the UK Government considers when making traffic light decisions is a country's genomic sequencing capacity – or access to genomic sequencing. Travel health specialist Dr Richard Dawood believes the US has ample capacity in the context of its current case numbers.
“As I understand things, in the US sequencing takes place both at State level and federally via the CDC both of which have access to commercial laboratories," he says
“CDC alone says it has access to resources for sequencing in excess of 20,000 samples per week. In the context of current case numbers (approx. 15,000 per day in the US) there is ample capacity there, bearing in mind that only a representative subset of samples can actually be sequenced in practice. (This is because – after initial PCR testing – there often isn’t enough sample remaining),” adds Dr Darwood.
"I think it is almost impossible to compare the systems in a meaningful way. What is clear however is that both countries do have robust testing protocols and sophisticated surveillance systems in place. [...] the US has similar vaccination rates, lower daily case rates, a lower death rate, and declining case numbers, so ought definitely to be on our green list. In the reverse direction, I think the US should be similarly reassured."
Paul Charles, chief executive of travel consultancy The PC Agency, agrees the US is “well within the green list criteria”. However, he says mid-July as the earliest date at which a UK-US travel corridor may be established. He cites the UK Government’s “bearish and quite inexplicable outlook” as one of the stumbling blocks.
“The UK and US have been in discussions about opening up travel since September last year and there has been little meaningful progress”, he says.
“A corridor for those fully jabbed should be opened up without any further delay. There’s nothing preventing that from happening. It’s time for politicians to deliver a reopening that would have a positive and major impact on families, the economy and mental health,” he adds.
Demand for travel to the US this summer has grown over the past month, according to data from flight comparison website Kayak. UK searches for travel to the US between July and September this year have increased by 29 per cent.
Andy Shaw is one the British holidaymakers holding out for a transatlantic travel corridor. He and his partner are due to travel to Las Vegas for a week this September for Andy’s 40th birthday – the trip was pushed back from April 2020. They visited the city in 2016 and have long wanted to return for its “incredible” hotels, restaurants and shows. “So far we've only paid a deposit and have until July to pay the balance, so we're hoping there will be more clarity either way by then.”
Tour operator Trailfinders says its clients think North America [Canada and the USA] is likely to open this summer.
“We are seeing far more bookings for North America than any other market for 2021,” says a spokesperson.
Not all are so optimistic, however. Shai Weiss, chief executive of Virgin Atlantic, concedes that the creation of the Atlantic taskforce is a “positive recognition of the importance of the UK-US travel corridor and a first step towards reopening the skies”. Yet, he adds: “In the absence of a definitive time frame, [it] again falls short of providing airlines, businesses and consumers with much needed certainty”.
“We urge Prime Minister Johnson and President Biden to use the G7 Summit to move the US to the UK’s ‘green list’ and repeal the 212F proclamation for UK travellers to the US immediately, and no later than July 4.”
Clive Wratten, chief executive of the Business Travel Association, says of the announcement: “This is the latest in a long line of travel taskforces which so far have only wreaked further devastation on our industry”.
“Jobs won’t be saved, nor livelihoods protected, until we are given a certainty on dates for the resumption of international travel. It is wider than our industry. In the first week of June, UK GDP has lost £630 million due to the lack of transatlantic business travel.”
Telegraph Travel asked the Department for Transport for comment on when quarantine-free travel between the countries may open up. A spokesperson said: “Our first priority is protecting the public and saving lives, and the traffic light system we have in place categorises countries and territories based on risk, using the latest data.
“We fully recognise the value of transatlantic routes. As set out in the Global Travel Taskforce, we continue to engage with international partners, including the US, to explore how we can open international travel safely.”
Loved ones who’ve been split between the UK and the US since the travel ban was first imposed, are desperate for restrictions to lift. Megan Jevin, a US citizen who’s lived in the UK since 2013 and is based in Cardiff, is among them.
Megan hasn’t seen her parents or sister in the States since December 2018. As an American, she could’ve entered the US. Her concern has been for return to the UK and whether she would encounter problems getting back into the country as she’s here on a work visa. While the US is amber-listed, she should be permitted to return, but would be required to self-isolate in the UK and pay for at least one additional PCR test.
“It’s been really difficult. Both my grandparents passed in March 2020 and I had to attend virtual funerals. [You] always think you’ll be able to get home for emergencies – I never dreamed of being cut off for something that serious of a nature”.
However, she says the taskforce is “exactly the news I’ve been waiting for”.
She adds: “I'm hopeful that this could mean I'll be able to go home in November for Thanksgiving, and see my family for the first time in almost two years. I'll definitely be watching the headlines closely to see when I'll be able to book my flights.”
British citizens with partners and family in the US need the US to lift its tough rules on visitors who've been UK in the 14 days before their arrival. This is the key concern for Kerry Coleman. She and her American fiancé have been together for four years, yet haven't been able to meet face-to-face for the past 13 months. “I was one of the lucky ones that I actually managed to fly into the states three days before Trump originally made the ban [...] which meant that we got to have nine glorious weeks together because of continued cancelled flights.”
She adds: “I cannot express in words how much it would mean to me for there to be a travel corridor between the US-UK, the depression and anxiety that has been escalated because of the constant let downs by the Biden administration is unfathomable.”
Kerry has attempted to secure a visa for entry to the US but this has yet to be processed due to what she describes as a “huge backlog”.
As well as bringing respite to separated families and couples, a swift opening of a UK-US travel corridor is vital for the countries’ respective tourism industries.
The reaction of Virginia Messina, senior vice president and acting chief executive of the World Travel and Tourism Council, to the announcement of the travel taskforce speaks for much of the travel industry.
“Unless we have a clear timeline and unlock transatlantic travel by 4 July at the latest, we will continue to see jobs lost and businesses go under,” she says.
“Nearly half of all adults in both countries are fully jabbed and could travel seamlessly straight away, enabling airlines and the wider travel sector to recover quickly. Those not vaccinated should be allowed to travel with negative test proof.”