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15 April 2021updated 23 Jul 2021 6:37am

How the traffic light travel system will “almost inevitably” lead to rising Covid-19 cases

The government’s plan for international travel could compromise the success of the vaccine roll-out.

By Harry Clarke-Ezzidio

Those yearning for a holiday abroad were given hope on 9 Aprilwhen the Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said people could “start to think” about booking foreign breaks.

The government has said its “traffic light” system, which will label countries red, amber or green based on the prevalence of coronavirus in the region, is key to restarting international travel. Vaccination and infection rates as well as risk of or concern around mutant Covid strains will also be considered when deciding a country’s classification.

Those returning from “red” or “amber” countries will be subject to various levels of testing and quarantining. This means “green light” countries will be most popular with holidaymakers, who will only need to take two tests – one pre-departure and one on their return – and will not have to quarantine unless they receive a positive test.

Under the current roadmap for easing restrictions, the earliest date people in England will be able to go abroad on holiday would be 17 May. The categorisation of countries will be unveiled a few weeks prior to this date. It is currently unclear how many countries will meet the “green” criteria.

“We have to keep realistic,” said aviation expert Alex Macheras. “I think we will see very few countries listed in the beginning as green.”

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Macheras said it is likely the handful of countries which are classified as green will receive an influx of British holidaymakers. 

Could this sudden rush of Brits to a small number of countries lead to a rise in cases, both domestically and internationally?

“The main concern is how difficult it is to stop infection coming back into the country,” says Lawrence Young, a virologist and professor of molecular oncology at the University of Warwick. “A lot of infection that came into the country [last summer] and fuelled the wave of infections in the autumn were people coming back from mainland Europe carrying the virus with them.”

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The success of the vaccine roll-out so far is not enough to prevent history repeating itself: while more than 32 million people in the UK have received their first dose, only seven million are fully vaccinated with both doses. 

With many still unprotected, opening up international travel too fast, too soon could cause several problems, warns Young. “We’re seeing the rise of very disturbing virus variants in other parts of the world, including Africa, India, Latin America… we could end up in a situation where we are compounding the problem by bringing variants into the country when there’s growing evidence that these variants can re-infect people who’ve already been infected, or who have been vaccinated.”

Young stresses that having a thorough testing process and – unlike last year – having a system in place to ensure people isolate when instructed to is key. But even these steps may not be enough. “Going through the airport, going on airplanes, all these things will compound or enhance the opportunity for the virus to spread,” he said. “It’s almost an inevitability that you will end up with more infections being brought into countries – it’ll be hard to prevent it.”

The pandemic’s impact on international tourism cannot be understated: the World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) estimates that lost global revenues surpass £934bn, putting more than 100 million jobs at risk worldwide and 2.4 million in the UK, according to the WTTC. Countries that have been particularly affected by the devastation of the tourism industry are urging visitors to return: Malta, for example, is offering financial incentives to entice tourists back.

“The challenge is basically for the industry to stay alive,” said Macheras. “They’ve been holding on for so long, and it doesn’t look like this summer is going to be the summer that they had hoped for.”

Shapps has said that the opening up of international travel is “vital” for business, but it is feared that moves to restart tourism could be counterproductive, undermining the progress made through the vaccine roll-out and therefore damaging travel prospects long term. “[Countries] know that they can only fix their economic crisis when they fix the public health one that’s causing the crisis,” said Macheras. 

“I fully appreciate the need to get the holiday industry back up and running, but a little bit of caution over the next couple of months is important,” Young added. “You can come up with great ideas about how to control this, but you’ve got to understand whether it works on the ground… Is it workable? Are people going to be compliant? That’s the big issue.”

[see also: Trust me, I’m 001 Doctor: The shapeshifting private health firm mishandling quarantine]