Indoor pints aside, there was one central headline as England moved to the next stage of its lockdown roadmap: Brits can finally go on foreign holidays again. Journalists tried to hide their glee as they set off on the first flights to Portugal with holidaymakers celebrating the return of tourism.
But the effect of on-again, off-again travel restrictions on separated families and couples received little attention.
“I feel forgotten,” said Anna*, who lives alone with her seven-year-old daughter and has been separated from her partner and his family in Croatia for the last year. “It’s not fair to lump people like myself and people who are looking to see their partners, their spouses, their children in with [people looking for] holidays.”
Having found a loving relationship after cutting ties with her own family, Anna now feels lost. “I never felt like I was wanted or belonged anywhere… but I finally found home, I found a partner, I found a family. I found everything and now that’s been taken away from me indefinitely.”
Under the government’s traffic light travel system, countries are labelled red, amber or green based on factors including prevalence of coronavirus cases and vaccination rates. Only a handful of countries are on the green list, meaning passengers must take Covid tests on departure and return and do not need to quarantine unless they return a positive test, and many of those are closed for entry, such as Australia and New Zealand.
Most of Europe, including Spain, France and Germany, and the rest of the world is on the amber list, meaning travellers coming to England will need to have a negative test prior to arrival, and will have to pay for private Covid tests to be taken on days two and eight of a mandatory ten-day quarantine.
Though the technical instructions are relatively clear, the government is struggling to convey a coherent message about what kind of travel is allowed. Though it is no longer illegal, the Health Secretary Matt Hancock unequivocally told Times Radio that “people should not travel to amber… countries unless it’s absolutely necessary, and certainly not for holiday purposes.”
“The double standards people are being held to is really complex,” said James*, who is currently living in France. During the pandemic he has barely seen his partner, who lives in the UK, meaning their relationship is under “an incredible strain”. “We knew that this was going to be long-distance, but we didn’t know just how long the gaps [in seeing each other] would be,” he said. When London was suddenly put into tier four in December, he had to abandon plans to visit his partner while he was driving to Calais.
“It’s not like I expect the [government] to create a policy for every single circumstance, but it has to be better than this,” he added, pointing to EU countries such as Germany and Denmark, which have implemented “sweetheart exemptions” that allow bi-national family members and unmarried couples to be reunited, despite an EU-wide entry ban.
James and his partner are still together, but the pandemic and its subsequent travel bans have caused countless relationships to break down.
“There was a period after Christmas where there was nothing but people breaking up online,” said Bella*, referencing Love is Not Tourism, an online forum of more than 47,000 people worldwide providing support for those separated by travel restrictions.
Unable to see her partner and her soon-to-be step-children who live in the US, Bella said that being without her family has taken a serious toll on her mental health. “I feel like I’ve been holding my breath for the longest time,” she said. “All of this anxiety, depression and loneliness, it manifests in you.
“I have missed everything that has gone on in the lives of the people that I love the most. I’ve never felt more lonely, you experience the same heartbreak every day,” she added. “And when it comes to children, you can disappoint them once, but when you continuously do it, they don’t understand.
“It is the most painful thing to see my partner and my future step-children go through two years of living life without me. I feel like my right to parent and my children have been taken away from me.”
Despite UK government advice, Bella plans to travel to the US and be reunited with her family, via a short stay in Mexico to bypass the US travel ban imposed last year. She believes the way governments across the world have handled situations such as hers has “felt like a punishment”.
The constant focus, in the media and by ministers, on the way tourism has been affected by the pandemic ignores the vast number of couples and families struggling to deal with separation: 87 per cent of people surveyed by Love is Not Tourism say they are experiencing mental health problems.
Boris Johnson says people need to “grasp” the idea that amber countries are “not somewhere where you should be going on holiday”. But for people who have been separated over the last year, amber countries aren’t a holiday destination, but a place where the ones they love are waiting for them.
* Names have been changed.